By Girish Linganna
According to the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), supported by the United Nations (UN), India has emerged as a key centre for illegal drug trade and trafficking, contributing significantly to the global drug trade, valued at over $650 billion.
The World Drug Report, 2022, by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) highlighted that around 11.2 million people across the globe were using injectable drugs. The report identified India as one of the largest markets for opiates, with trafficking expanding southwards and westwards along the traditional Balkan route. The potential impacts include a wider spread of drug use, a rise in trafficking activities and the growth of organized crime associated with these activities, besides raising concerns about the possibility of an increase in heroin overdoses due to greater availability of opiates.
The report also detailed that India was responsible for the fourth highest seizure of opium in 2020, totalling 5.2 tonnes and also ranked third for the highest amount of morphine confiscated that year, at 0.7 tons. Additionally, in 2020, Asian countries reported seizures of 1.2 tons of tramadol, with India accounting for nearly the entire amount, except for 39 kilograms. In comparison, India’s seizures in 2019 were 144 kg, while six other countries reported a total of 70 kilograms seized.
The report further noted that illegal opium cultivation in India was found primarily in Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh. The drug trade in India is largely managed by organized crime groups, particularly at the retail level, with high profits and relatively lenient penalties for drug-related crimes. Efforts to control drug abuse and trafficking have been ineffective, leading to an increase in drug consumption and trade. A significant portion of these drugs is smuggled from India to African countries.
The UN report highlighted India as one of the largest markets for opiates worldwide in terms of consumer base, indicating a susceptibility to a surge in supply. There are already indications that trafficking of opiates from Afghanistan might be intensifying, pointing towards a growing challenge for India. Significant drug seizures in India have sounded an alarm and raised serious doubts about the trustworthiness of Indian security agencies among international narcotics regulatory organizations, due to allegations that these agencies are engaging in duplicitous activities.
India has emerged as a significant passageway for drug trafficking, with narcotics being transported to Europe and North America. Additionally, it faces a considerable challenge with domestic drug addiction, with a vast number of individuals dependent on substances like heroin, opium and cannabis. Several states in India have been implicated in dealings with international drug cartels, operating unlawful businesses worth billions of dollars.
India’s drug trade is powered by illicit opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, overseen by insurgent warlords. The country’s unending appetite for narcotics is largely satisfied by Afghanistan, the main supplier of premium heroin and opium. Iran’s strategically positioned Chabahar port serves as a direct channel for drugs originating from Afghanistan and distributed by Indian drug networks.
According to a media report in December 2023, the Border Security Force (BSF) and Punjab Police uncovered networks of Indian smugglers using drones for cross-border smuggling. In a statement to the media, a senior BSF official said the BSF was keeping an eye on the movement of drones along the Indo-Pak border and had shot down over 95 drones during the past year. Indian smugglers dispatch these drones to Pakistan, where their associates load them with narcotics and then the drones are flown back to India by Indian smugglers.
In the review of a book, Narcotopia, by Patrick Winn, published on Friday (February 9, 2024), The Economist quotes the author as saying that numerous drug cartels have comparable beginnings. Impoverished farmers in isolated communities cultivate illegal cash crops, such as coca plants and opium poppies, which can grow in poor-quality soil. Local thugs then step in. Networks for smuggling drugs emerge to transport the refined drugs to wealthier nations. As the earnings increase, the cartel faces the need to fend off rivals. To maintain their operations unnoticed, they resort to bribing and intimidating officials.
This trend has occurred from Afghanistan to Mexico, yet only one location has evolved into a complete narco-state. Situated in Myanmar, close to China, is Wa State—a mountainous area, similar in size to the Netherlands, where the Wa ethnic group lives, numbering about 1 million people. In 1989, it proclaimed its de facto independence from Myanmar and is now ruled by the United Wa State Army (UWSA) under a one-party socialist system, although it lacks international recognition.
From the late-1980s, the UWSA has led the meth trade in South-East Asia, which—along with East Asia—has a drug market, according to the UN, valued at $80 billion annually. Initially, they grew opium, but then moved on to producing heroin and now manufacture some of the highest-quality methamphetamine in the world. The profits enable them to fund an army bigger than Sweden’s, equipped with advanced weapons. The meth trade is the illegal making and selling of methamphetamine, a powerful and highly addictive stimulant drug. It involves a network of people who produce, move and sell the drug worldwide.
Winn notes in Narcotopia that Wa State’s economic and foundational structure is deeply rooted in the production and trafficking of heroin and methamphetamine. The UWSA is not, however, merely a mafia operating in the jungles, but effectively governs a legitimate nation. This self-proclaimed ethnostate levies taxes and operates its own hospitals, schools and electricity network. Politburo members of Wa State have close relations with the Chinese government, with an unofficial embassy representing them in Myanmar.
Winn holds America largely responsible for this state of affairs, says The Economist. He uncovers obscure research to demonstrate how, during the 1950s to the 1970s, the CIA backed numerous opium traffickers in Myanmar. In return for weapons and exemption from prosecution, these leaders also served as anti-communist militia commanders, collecting intelligence and conducting attacks into Maoist China. Myanmar’s generals have allowed Wa State to do as it chooses, as long as it does not try to get official status from the UN. (IPA Service)
(The author is a Defence, Aerospace & Political Analyst based in Bengaluru.)