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Northeast India’s Battle Against Drugs

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Northeast India’s Battle Against Drugs

The drug menace in India’s northeastern states has major implications for the country’s external and internal security.

Northeast India’s Battle Against Drugs
Credit: Mabel Amber / Pixabay

When deadly ethnic clashes erupted in Manipur in India’s northeastern frontier with Myanmar in May 2023, it was attributed to one group’s demands for recognition as a constitutionally-mandated Scheduled Tribe. Soon, large swathes of the state were engulfed in the violence. Almost a year after the first killings last summer, the total death count stood at about 220. More than 1,100 people were injured while about 60,000 were displaced.

The cultivation of poppy and cross-border drug trafficking from Myanmar to India has been a frequent theme of reporting by journalists and confirmed by Home Ministry reports from time to time. The government acknowledges that while drug consumption in Northeast India is a “serious problem,” some new trends, such as drug syndicates and narcotic smugglers’ “collusion” with Nigerian cartels, have added a new dimension to the problem that shows no signs of abating.

Hi-tech Surveillance

India’s northeastern states – the “Seven Sisters” as they are traditionally referred to – have historically been associated with the cross-border drug trade whose origins are linked to the “Golden Triangle” with Myanmar at the center of this international narcotics-fuelled economy. As a result, Indian police have been empowered to use government rules and legislations to hit hard against drug trafficking in the northeast.

Detailed “vulnerability mapping” is carried out from time to time along the 1,642-kilometer border with Myanmar to deepen and widen surveillance by deploying electronic equipment. Long-range reconnaissance and observation and battlefield surveillance radars have also been deployed in some northeastern states.

More recently, the government forbade the free cross-border movement of people. And then, on April 24 this year, security forces seized heroin worth $418,000 from traffickers in a Manipur border district, which underscores the pervasiveness of the drug menace in India’s Northeast.

There was a time when India’s Northeast was associated with widespread drug addiction, HIV/AIDS infection, and insurgency. A 2016 report, however, re-emphasized that the region “is heading towards a much bigger problem to be tackled if not tightly noosed now.” Around the same time, another study stated quite explicitly that the drug situation in the Northeast was “going beyond one’s control.”

The drug-use problem was so pervasive in the region as far back as 2014 that reports indicated that in Manipur alone there were an estimated 45,000 to 50,000 drug addicts, of which nearly half used intravenous methods.

The situation has worsened since.

A more recent study “revealed a diverse array of drugs being used” by young people  in the state, with heroin (54.3 percent) being the most commonly abused, followed by opioids (47.1 percent) and methamphetamine (41.2 percent). 

The second category of drugs abused in Manipur constitute cannabis (32.8 percent), sedatives (27.5 percent), and inhalants (17.4 percent). This study reported an alarming 48.6 percent of respondents who used needles and syringes to “administer” injectable drugs.

Heroin Trade

Heroin first made its entry into Manipur’s Churachandpur district, which is located in the hills and borders the northwestern part of Myanmar, in 1983. Drug addiction picked up among young people (15-30 age group) before the menace spread to other states in the region.

A 2019 Indian government report says that 22.1 percent opioids are used in Arunachal Pradesh (which also borders Myanmar), 25.67 percent in Mizoram, 25.22 percent in Nagaland, 14.22 percent in Manipur, and 2.9 percent in Assam.

It is generally acknowledged that the growth and production of drugs, including the deadly synthetic variants, in Myanmar “pose a serious challenge” to Indian security. Clearly, the current political instability in Myanmar, reflected in the civil war-like conditions in the strife-torn country, have produced a “conducive environment” for drug cartels operating in Wa and Shan states.

India’s Northeast is one of the routes for marketing of drugs produced in Myanmar’s Wa and Shan states where drug overlords, insurgent outfits, and foreign collaborators work to operate poppy fields and laboratories. The response of the respective state governments in the Northeast has been at best patchy, while the central government’s actions against drug trafficking has been more in the form of fits-and-starts.

Before the the BJP won government in 2014, efforts to battle drug trafficking were not effective enough in terms of combating the menace across all states. Drug seizures – an indicator of the magnitude of the problem – were few and far between.

However, the Narendra Modi government sought to crack down on cross-border narcotics trafficking and intensified its actions in a more concerted manner in 2022. Following a high-level meeting in Guwahati in Assam in October 2022, the Ministry of Home Affairs claimed that as part of its “Drug-free India” campaign, about 40,000 kg of narcotic substances were destroyed across northeast India.

The government claimed that its anti-drug trafficking agencies ended up destroying about 150,000 kg of narcotic substances, which was twice the target set by the ministry.

The government vowed to use drones, artificial intelligence and satellite mapping to identify and control areas where opium is grown. It also promised thorough investigation – from drug source to destination – and a crackdown on the “entire network.”

Even as the Modi government sought to play up its achievements in its fight against drugs, it made sure to make a political statement as it compared seizures made during 2014-2022 and 2006-13 when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime was in power. It sought to show that compared to 1,257 cases registered against drug traffickers during 2006-13, the Modi government lodged 3,172 cases between 2014 and 2022. Also, the total number of arrests during the same periods rose 260 percent from 1,362 to 4,888. On the seizures front, while 152,000 kg of drugs ($91,884,288) was seized during 2006-13, the anti-drug agencies and security forces confiscated and recovered 330,000 kg ($296,800,000) of narcotic substances in multiple raids.

The government has announced a “zero tolerance policy” on drug trafficking as well as against the “dirty money” and “organized mafia,” which could “damage the country’s economy and national security.”

Most state governments of the region carry out intermittent operations against cross-border drug trade and announce massive seizure of various narcotics. This is, however, an indication that the menace is far from receding.

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.