National highways in the Jaipur-Jodhpur-Jaisalmer region have acquired a new high, quite literally. Local eateries or dhabas along the shining black tarmac are the new havens for those pursuing the pleasures of opium. In this part of western Rajasthan, dhabawallahs or people who control these outlets are the preferred middlemen to smuggle opium through a neatly-controlled demand and supply chain not too far from the Indo-Pakistan border.
Consider this. In February 2013, the alleged kingpin of an inter-state drug trafficking racket was arrested by the Indore railway police from Rajasthan. Nepal Singh, 35, was held from the Bhawani Mandi town in Rajasthan’s Jhalawar district after a tip-off proved handy. He was held after the railway police nabbed an accomplice Ramkaran and seized 450 grammes of heroin valued at Rs 40 lakh.
In March 2013, the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) busted a warehouse in Jaipur’s Vishwakarma industrial area which was being used as a drug storage facility by a flourishing gang of dealers. A peddler from the Shastri Nagar locality of Jaipur was held with the contraband. According to the police, the seized quantity of chemical was enough to make 8 to 10 kg of heroin or smack of good quality.
In November 2013, the excise intelligence and enforcement bureau (EIEB) busted an inter-state gang and arrested the kingpin with 10 quintals of cannabis in addition to the narcotics valued at more than Rs 5 lakhs. Three persons including the dealer Naba Kishore Kedia of Kandarpur in Cuttack and two of his accomplices Pramod Das and Bapina Das were arrested.
According to a study conducted at the Mahatma Gandhi Hospital, Jodhpur, between December 2004 and February 2006, western Rajasthan has shockingly emerged as one of the epicenters of opium addiction in the country.
The study reveals some startling details. A whopping 97.2 percent of patients come from rural western Rajasthan, a number of them predominately elderly males with a history of opium addiction, on an average, for over 16 years. The longest serving user was hooked on for 50 years. The youngest addict was a 33-year-old, the oldest 80. An overwhelming 62 percent were initiated into opium addiction by social customs, 26.8 percent sought relief from pain while another 9.9 percent used it to battle chronic cough.
According to authorities, west Rajasthan is fast becoming an important transit point along the network of international trade and movement for narcotics, fake currency, and explosives. Border districts like Bikaner, Barmer, Sri Ganganagar and urban centres like Jodhpur and Jaipur are a key link in the chain of operations.
If media reports are anything to go by, roughly Rs 300 crore worth of illegal drugs are seized in Rajasthan every year. Now the police and intelligence agencies say traffickers along this well oiled illegal trade chain pose a threat to national security. India’s 1,100-kilometer-long border with Pakistan is making it increasingly difficult to monitor drug runners, smugglers and terrorists who use it as an entry point into the Indian mainland.
Rajasthan has a long tradition of opium cultivation and use. Some opium farming is allowed under law while the rest is illegal. Indigenous opium produced in this region is well known for its high quality. Now as highways have grown, so has mobility for common travelers and drug syndicates.
According to the police, the dhabas which dot the landscape serve as perfect opium outlets. “We get Rs 2,000 per packet as middlemen but the traders make crores,’’ admits a small hotel owner in Dechu, 30 kms from Jodhpur. But it is not as if opium is sold freely; the network has a select clientele which includes regular truck drivers and known local and foreign users. A stranger asking questions is not likely to get too far.
‘We caught a lot of opium last year’
Neha Champawat is zonal director Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB), Jodhpur. She talks in an exclusive interview. Excerpts:
Is drug trade rampant in west Rajasthan?
I can’t comment but I can talk only on the statistical data available at the NCB which may not be a conclusive guide. In 2010, the NCB took action against drug traders who have a bigger heroine front which came in from Jaisalmer and bigger centers like Delhi and Punjab. But it is not a regular phenomenon.
After 2010, the NCB did not take any action against drug traders?
Other agencies and local police affected some heroin hauls.
What about illegal opium cultivated in Rajasthan?
Opium is cultivated with government permission in some parts of southern Rajasthan and MP. We seized 62 and 73 kgs of opium respectively in December 2013. One case was meant for Punjab while the other came from the opium cultivation belt of southern Rajasthan. That also gave us an indication that opium trade is on the rise and steps are needed to control its illegal aspects.
Did you know that dhabhawalas on the Jaipur-Jaisalmer national highways act as middlemen for opium traders?
We will investigate and take action if we get inputs from the local police. We will try and figure out if they can conduct random checking at these dhabas.
Why is there no action against illegal opium cultivation?
You need to talk to the Central Bureau of Narcotics (CBN) which checks whether opium is legally or illegally grown. We have caught quite a bit of opium last year. It was going to Punjab and originated on the border of MP and Rajasthan, the area where it is traditionally grown.
West Rajasthan shares a border with Pakistan and has emerged as a big trade belt?
From the seizers we have done, it may be a part of it. Of course we can’t say that all cultivated opium lands up in Rajasthan or Punjab.
Opium is smuggled to Bangladesh and Pakistan through western Rajasthan?
I can conclusively say that we seized 660 kg of ganja (cannabis) coming from north east India into western Rajasthan. We intercepted the consignment on its way to Jaipur.
For local users, opium is a time-tested phenomenon. “Opium gives us strength to drive for long hours. It is not a drug here, it is a traditional medicine. Rajasthan has for long a large opium consuming population,’’ points out a truck driver who even goes so far as to illustrated its usage. In rural areas, opium is consumed at social gatherings, marriages and even condolences. According to local custom, opium initiation ceremonies are held in various rural communities like Vishnoi, Seervi and Jats after which offerings are duly made to Lord Shiva.
The implications of cultivation and trade of opium are manifold. Major educational hubs like Jodhpur, Jaipur and Kota have found users among its young student population setting out to make careers.
In order to get a handle on the rampant drug trade, India and Pakistan signed a pact to ensure its curb in 2011. But the long international border makes things difficult because Afghanistan and Pakistan are known international hubs for illegal drug distilling, production and trade, and its impact easily spilling over to India.
The Intelligence Bureau, which first raised the alarm about Rajasthan, says the state has become a favorite landing point for everything illegal emanating out of Pakistan. In November 2013, senior police officers of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan got together to discuss and chalk out plans to effectively tackle inter-state smuggling of narcotics and other intoxicants. This followed seizures of many big consignments of opium and poppy husk on a regular basis by law enforcement agencies.
Security experts say that since drug trade is directly linked to terrorism, the issue assumes a graver dimension. As compared to fake currency racketeers, the perpetrators of the illegal opium trade have found it easier to supply drugs since there continues to be a big market. The police say that terror networks have been pushing this trade more aggressively of late since they find the need to raise money for their operations. No resources are clearly going to be enough to tackle a menace of this magnitude.