On a chilly November 2013 evening, a motley crowd of truck drivers lounged on charpoys, shouting orders for dal makhni and “chaa malai mar ke” at a dhaba in Ghanaur, near Murthal, barely 54km away from Delhi on National Highway No. 1. It was business as usual. Suddenly, it was not so ordinary any more. The banter had given away to a sharp alertness, all eyes on two swanky cars that had stopped in front of the roadside eatery. Five men walked towards a table and ordered food. As they tucked in, they found themselves surrounded by a group of truckers, all armed. One of them put a gun on the temple of a man with a paunch and receding hairline—Arjuna award winning wrestler Jagdish Singh Bhola. The cops had been waiting for the drug lord, a vital link in the `6,000 crore narcotics racket unearthed so far, for the last six months and had finally got their catch. Cut to barely two months later. January 21, 2014. At the Pulmoran border outpost near Amritsar, BSF jawans on early morning patrol noticed some movement near the fence through the fog. Shouting out an order to stop, the jawans did not get a reply but were instead greeted by a volley of gunfire which they returned with interest.
A little later, a search yielded the bodies of three intruders, 20 packets of one kg each of heroin, a pistol, ammunition, a mobile phone with a Pakistani SIM card and currency from across the border. The same day, but a 100 kilometres away at the Kassoke border outpost in Ferozepur, BSF jawans seized 16 kg of heroin, a pistol and ammunition, though the fog cover helped the smugglers to flee.
The business of drugs is booming in Punjab, earning the state the dubious distinction of being the narcotics hub of the country. As the authorities step up efforts to check the menacing trade said to be worth a staggering `20,000 crore, the drug lords and mules alike are devising novel methods to clear the scanners undetected.
From pushing the drugs with plastic pipes across the barbed wire at the border to be picked up by their contacts in India to stuffing heroin into cement bags as discovered during a raid aboard the Samjhauta Express, every trick in the book is being explored. Custom officers recovered 22kg of heroin worth around `110 crore in the international market from the Samjhauta Express on December 3, 2013. A huge consignment of drugs estimated to be worth over `500 crore in the international market was unearthed on the same train on October 8, 2013.
Controlled by a group of Non-Resident Indians and involving nationals from the UK, Netherlands, China and Vietnam, the illegal trade spans a number of countries in Europe and North America, and is estimated to be worth `20,000 crore, with synthetic drugs alone accounting for `9,000 crore. The figures are reinforced by the quantum jump in contraband seized by BSF—a three-fold rise in 2013 as compared to 2010. In 2013, the number of people arrested under the NDPS Act too went up to 9,898 and cases registered jumped to 8,705 from 5,508 in 2010.
Its geographical location and porous borders make Punjab a happy hunting ground for drug traders. According to intelligence sources, the drug cartels are more active in winter, when their NRI handlers fly into Punjab to “sponsor” local kabaddi tournaments. Little wonder then that this year, the police are watching to see who fails to turn up for the games, providing an inkling about their involvement at a time the heat is definitely on those on the wrong side of the law.
This new crop of drug lords has shifted from dealing in traditional opium and poppy husk to the more profitable and factory-made synthetic or party drugs like Ice, 99 per cent of which are sent abroad.
Ice and other high-quality drugs like heroin are smuggled out of India, using “cut-outs”—different sets of individuals for packaging, transportation, receiving and distributing the consignment.
Patiala Special Superintendent of Police H S Mann says sports clubs based in Canada and Europe are used for distribution of the consignment once they reach their final port of call. And till that point, it is a well-oiled political nexus at work. Bhola’s interrogation allegedly threw up the names of many policemen and politicians, but the ruling regime insists its legislators are clean.
If anything, the drug trade has only grown by leaps and bounds in the last few years. Till date this year, the BSF has seized around 62kg of heroin from the Amritsar and Ferozepur sector of the Indo-Pak border. Till December 31 last year, more than 731kg of heroin was seized both by Punjab Police and Border Security Force, as was `1,648 crore worth of Ice. In the first four months of 2013, the BSF had recovered nearly 145 kg heroin—half of last year’s total seizure. In 2008, the BSF seized over 100 kg of heroin, in 2009 about 120 kg, in 2010 about 115 kg and in 2011 only around 68 kg.
Not just BSF, the Punjab Police too recovered 409kg of heroin in 2013, 278 kg in 2012 and 100kg in 2011. Large amount of poppy husk was netted too. In 2011, 75,786kg was recovered, in 2012 the figure was 1,50,299 kg and in 2013 it was 2,0234 kg. While in 2012, 1,101.551 kg opium was seized, in 2010, the seizure was only 754.422kg. In February 2013, customs officials burnt 445kg of heroin seized over last few years worth a staggering `2,225 crore.
In comparison, the total haul in Maharashtra in 2013 was a little over `200 crore, while in Delhi it was closer to `300 crore.
A senior intelligence official said 40 per cent of the total heroin produced in Afghanistan is smuggled into the world market via Punjab—the reason being the proximity of the India-Pakistan border to the Golden Crescent, the largest producers of opium and cannabis. The money from sale is used to buy weapons for terror activities.
Says BSF Deputy Inspector General M F Farooqui: “More seizures were due to element of surprise in patrolling introduced by us. We are trying to make our patrolling unpredictable for the smugglers.”
Sources said heroin is worth `1.50 lakh per kg in Afghanistan, but by the time it reaches Pakistan, the rates touch `2.50 lakh per kg. The smugglers from Pakistan use plastic pipes to push heroin packets across the electrified fence or just throw the wrapped packets across, which are later picked up by their Indian counterparts. The connivance of Pakistani border guards cannot be ruled out.
IN THE THICK OF THINGS
Geographical proximity to Afghanistan, the biggest producer of heroin in the world, the Golden
Triangle of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand and the Golden Crescent made up of Afghanistan-Pakistan-Iran has made India’s borders vulnerable to drug trafficking. India is a transhipment point for heroin from Afghanistan and Pakistan and from Southeast Asian countries. It is smuggled in from Pakistan and Myanmar, with some quantities transhipped through Nepal. Most heroin shipped from Indi a is destined for Europe and US.
Once the heroin is collected from the fields, its rate goes up to `5 lakh per kg as long as it is in the Tarn Taran-Amritsar belt. From the border, the next destination for the drugs is Zirakpur for onward delivery to the Kandaharis from Afghanistan who live in the Jama Masjid area of Delhi.
As soon as it is delivered in Delhi, the rate goes up to `15 lakh per kg. From Delhi, it goes to Mumbai, where the price shoots up to `30 lakh per kg and then to `5 crore per kg once it is out of the country.
“Heroin smuggling along the international border in Punjab has been on the rise. At an average, 25.5 kg heroin is seized every month from the Punjab border by BSF,” says an officer. That is worth more than `125 crore in the international market.
It is just not heroin, the new craze for synthetic party drug Ice resulted in seizures worth `1,648 crore. This year alone the state police have arrested 32 “influential” persons who were involved in the manufacturing or supply of this drug. Punjab Police have written to Interpol for help in investigations, besides forming its 21 teams to sniff out 327 suspects within the country.
Wanted criminal Ranjit Singh Kandola alias Raja Kandola, who had earlier lived in the US, was arrested in 2012. He had a unit at his farmhouse in Samrala in Ludhiana district which was manufacturing Ice.
But that was only the tip of the iceberg. In March 2013, Anoop Singh Kahlon was arrested with 26 kg heroin worth `130 crore from Zirakpur. He told police that two boxing champions were clients—Olympic silver-medallist Vijender Singh and fellow boxer Ram Singh. The police failed to nail Vijender in the absence of his hair and nail sample tests, but found a car outside Kahlon’s house registered in the name of Vijender’s wife Archana. Vijender, who is DSP in Haryana Police, rubbished the allegations. Ram Singh, who is a head constable with Punjab Police, also denied any involvement.
This led to the busting of another network in November 2013 as Bhola was arrested as his name figured in eight drugs related FIRs and he had been on the run. More sinister connections were unearthed during investigations after Bhola’s arrest with the names of underworld don Dawood Ibrahim, Abu Salem and Mustafa Dossa coming up. Bhola confessed that he was inspired by Dawood to make it big in the world of crime.
Meanwhile, Bhola’s accomplice Maninder Singh Bittu alias Aulakh confessed that he spent lavishly on politicians, meeting the expenses of rallies of a political personality, claimed police sources.
Bhola also claimed that three Punjab ministers were involved in the racket, but said he would only reveal the names if the investigations were handed over to the CBI. The Opposition Congress grabbed the opportunity and demanded a CBI inquiry, setting off a chain of hunger strikes and dharnas by its leaders.
Punjab Congress President Partap Singh Bajwa was vocal in his demand for a CBI probe, but former chief minister Amarinder Singh felt the state police could handle the probe on its own.
Bhola’s interrogation led the Punjab Police to Delhi-based Dev Behl, who was allegedly obtaining raw materials, converting them into Ice and supplying them to international markets including Canada for the last three years.
He along with his driver and an accomplice were arrested. During his interrogation, the police claimed to have discovered he had been an associate of underworld don Da wood Ibrahim and his brother Anees.
Behl’s questioning led to the busting of another gang and arrest of five persons, including a Myanmar national, from Delhi and Himachal Pradesh, thus cracking another Delhi-based chain of Ice suppliers. It revealed a new trafficking route being used for pumping synthetic drugs into North America through Myanmar and China, utilising the Golden Triangle-based links.
Then this year, Punjab Police busted a `6,000 crore international synthetic drug racket masterminded by a Canadian national of Indian origin. Devinder Singh, belonging to Rajasthan and living in Canada, was arrested on January 5, 2014. Investigations revealed that precursor chemicals like Ketamine, Ephedrine and Pseudoephedrine were procured by the drug racketeers from Hyderabad, Mumbai and Delhi after diverting from the pharmaceutical sector and smuggled into Canada. After that, two more people were arrested in this case. Meanwhile Kandola, in his statement to the Enforcement Directorate in 2013, alleged that Punjab Police officers were also allegedly involved. He said Inspector-General (Bathinda Zone) Paramraj Singh Umranangal and Mohali SP (Detective) Balwinder Singh are known to him. Refuting his claim, Umranangal said Kandola was an acquaintance as both their sons studied in the same school. Balwinder too denied knowing Kandola.
Incidentally, the Enforcement Directorate attached `20 crore worth of properties belonging to Kandola, freezing his bungalows and other assets under money-laundering laws. The assets that have been attached include Kandola’s 9.5 acres farmhouse in Samrala, a house at Banga village, hotel Roop Palace in Roopnagar and a palatial bungalow in DLF City Phase-I in Gurgaon.
A sustained drive by the state police, which has adopted a zero tolerance policy against drug trafficking appears to be paying off. Punjab DGP Sumedh Singh Saini set the ball rolling a few months back while directing senior officers to crack down by going after the kingpins.
Officers were directed not to rest content by arresting couriers but go in for forward and backward linkages so that those responsible for import of the drugs as well as the recipients could be proceeded against. Dinkar Gupta, Additional DGP (Law and Order) says the Punjab Police started a two-tier interrogation system for drug smugglers from October 14, 2013, with the smugglers being questioned first by the district police, followed by sustained interrogation by officers of the State Special Operations Cell (SSOC) in the Joint Interrogation Centre at Amritsar. So far, over 100 smugglers have been interrogated. These interrogations have yielded valuable information about the various cogs in the different drug networks to enable the Punjab Police to smash these networks in an end-to-end manner, from source of supply to the distribution network.
Police said that the focus was not limited to Punjab. Networks operating in other parts of the country were also being detected and action being taken. It has also been revealed in investigations that most of the synthetic drugs being smuggled were targeted for the international market in North America and Europe. The accused would supply the precursor chemicals to factories based in and around Punjab to manufacture Ice and then use the Myanmar-China route and Chinese suppliers to reach the drugs to the international market, says Gupta.
Now, the police appear determined to end the menace. Says DGP Saini, “The state government is determined to make Punjab drug-free within a year.”
Earlier, former Punjab DG (Prisons) Shashi Kant had charged the state government with not taking action against several senior leaders of ruling Akali Dal and Opposition Congress for their alleged collusion with drug mafia. In a letter to the Punjab and Haryana High Court, Kant alleged that the government had not taken any action against over 10 senior politicians despite him submitting a list of the names. The government, however, trashed his claims, saying the former DGP should have take action when he held the post and there was no point in making allegations now. Kant had wrote to the court in August 2013 but till date he has not named anyone.
Fighting the drug menace on another front, Punjab government plans to open another 22 drug addiction centres. At present, Punjab has three drug de-addiction centres in government medical colleges in Patiala, Amritsar and Faridkot. Seven de-addiction centres are functional in district hospitals. There are also 26 de-addiction centres.