Hurricane Heroin

Almost unseen, a drug storm is blowing across India. Vast stretches are turning into hubs of home-grown heroin at shocking speed. Rishi Majumder hits the trail, and discovers too many people willing to risk everything for a quick fix

Photographs: Aniruddha Banerjee and GP Awasthi (some photographs have been obtained from drug enforcement authority records), credited as per.

This article originally appeared in Tehelka magazine in its January 29, 2011 issue



THERE’S NOTHING that scares you as much as talking to Aykhatha, the one-handed. Aykhatha, 35, is emblematic of the tenacity of a heroin trafficker. In Bangla, ‘aykhatha’ is slang for a person with one hand. Aykhatha lost his left hand when he was seven. That didn’t stop him from becoming one of the most feared drug lords in Lalgola, in West Bengal’s Murshidabad district, on the Indo-Bangladesh border.

Unknown to most, Lalgola is India’s emerging smack capital. Three years ago, the police chased Aykhatha as he was transporting heroin across the border on a motorcycle, Catching drug lords with drugs is next to impossible, because they rarely carry consignments themselves. Aykhatha hadn’t found a carrier that night, and it was too big a deal for him to resist. If caught, they would surely find enough heroin on him to put him away for 10 years. Instead, Aykhatha drove his bike, with one hand, over and beyond a small hill slope. The jeep skidded down the slope in pursuit.

Aykhatha stands and speaks in the corner of a dark dingy mustard oil mill. He wears a black polo shirt, jeans, Reebok jogging shoes and a thick brown jacket. The colour of his teeth, that show when he grins or laughs, varies between yellow and black. The empty left jacket sleeve that would have covered a hand is tucked into a pocket in an apparent denial of what it’s missing. But that’s not what scares you.

The area under illicit poppy cultivation has shot up over the years
1,820acres of illicit poppy cultivation was detected in 2007-08 5,532acres of illicit poppy cultivation was detected in 2008-09 7,620.5
acres of illicit poppy cultivation was detected in 2009-10

“I’ve left the heroin trade for the past two years,” he says, pointing to the mustard mill with his right hand. “This is all I own now.” Aykhatha is today Lalgola’s best known informer. He informs drug enforcement agencies about heroin traffickers, and heroin traffickers about drug enforcement agencies. He informs those who want to buy heroin, and those selling it. He’s informing us because he thinks we’re from a drug enforcement agency. He’ll pass on this information too. If he finds out we’re not, he’ll pass on that too. But that’s not what scares you either. What scares you is the following conversation:

TEHELKA: Who’s doing the jobs now?

He gives us the names.

TEHELKA: Where’s the heroin coming from?

AYKHATHA: It’s being made here.

TEHELKA:Made here? I thought you got heroin from Barabanki.

AYKHATHA (flashing a triumphant grin): That was till six months ago. Not anymore. Lalgola is independent now.

TEHELKA: Independent?

AYKHATHA (still grinning): Have you been to the fields yet?

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1. Illicit poppy fields located 2 km from Dubrajpur police station in Naxal-affected district of Birbhum in West Bengal 2. The first poppy flower of the season 3. Poppy seeds are sown in October and the crop is harvested in March. Each bigha yields 3.5 kilos of opium, which translates to 225 grams of heroin

Photos: Aniruddha Banerjee

That Lalgola, in the past only a transit point, is now manufacturing its own heroin is scary. What many officials still believe is that Lalgola relies on Barabanki — that is currently infamous as ‘India’s smack capital’ — for its heroin supply. What else is scary? That the “fields” that Aykhatha is talking about are poppy fields, from which opium to make heroin is extracted. Such fields exist legally only in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Till 2004, heroin makers would divert opium, meant to make medicines, from these fields — and use it to make heroin. Drug officials would, strictly amongst themselves, call these three states India’s ‘Golden Triangle’, referencing the illicit poppy growing areas of South East Asia that had once supplied heroin to the world.

But the fields here are illegal poppy fields in West Bengal. According to a recently compiled Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) intelligence report, a shocking 7,620.5 acres of illicit poppy cultivation was detected and destroyed in 2010. These illicit fields had sprung up nine Indian states. And 7,620.5 acres was only what had been detected. Enforcement officials say that as much as 10 times this area of illicit poppy cultivation may be going undetected. The NCB expects more cultivation to pop up in 2011 in the same nine states.

Fact Nugget 1: Heroin made in India and sold to addicts is mostly smack or brown sugar. When made it has a purity ranging between 20 and 60 percent

Eight of these states (except for Karnataka where the poppy cultivation detected has been negligible — 0.5 acres) are Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Manipur, and Arunachal Pradesh. When these states are traced on the map, they form a crescent — like the poppy growing belt of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, which holds sway over the world opium supply and is called the ‘Golden Crescent’. Going by how India’s ‘Golden Triangle’ was named, these nine states can easily be termed India’s ‘Golden Crescent’.

Lalgola, in turn, is a point on the crescent that uses this new source of opium to make heroin. This is the basis of how it has become “independent” — where heroin is concerned. If similar heroin making hubs evolve all over India’s Golden Crescent (and this story shows how they might already be), then India would reach a point of no return in heroin addiction.

“So why did you leave the smack trade?” we ask Aykhatha. “Is it because drug lords making their own heroin took over?” “I left because they (the police) caught my brother in possession of my heroin — and jailed him,” he says. “He suffered for my misdeeds. But, I should have left it long ago. I should have left it for what it does to so many heroin addicts.”

KAMAL AGARWAL, 20, has been one of so many heroin addicts for five years now. Syringe marks seem to form galaxies along his arms and legs. His hair roots have turned a freakish brown. His face is shrunken and scarred from beatings he has received from police constables. His eyes, hollow, have dark rings under them. He weighs 50 kilos, which doctors claim is an improvement from when he was admitted into the National Drug Detoxification and Treatment Centre (NDDTC), at New Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). When admitted, Kamal was facing classic heroin withdrawal. His body was constantly writhing in pain. His nose kept running. His mind had descended into a depression only an addict would understand.

Kamal comes from the archetypal Indian middle-class family. His father, a Ghaziabad building contractor, earns Rs. 60,000 a month. His mother is a housewife. His elder brother has started a movie store business. His elder sister is married. But Kamal, when he was 15, got hooked on to brown sugar because a gang of friends he started hanging out with did it. The first week’s trial supply of smack was free. He got expelled from school and refused to enrol in another one. He stole money and jewellery from home to feed his habit. When his family found out and locked everything up he joined his friends in picking pockets on trains and buses.

They would earn Rs. 20,000 a day in this way and blow it all on smack. The police wouldn’t arrest them because they were minors – and because they were heroin addicts. “You’re always scared they have AIDS,” says a constable about arresting heroin addicts. “And that they’ll stick their syringe needle into you.” Injecting brown, instead of chasing or smoking it, gave the boys blisters. Their limbs swelled. But they wouldn’t stop.

Then one of them, a boy from the same social background as Kamal, overdosed on smack and died on the street. Another boy in the gang saw this and went into rehab. Another was caught pick-pocketing and sent to a juvenile correctional centre. Still another migrated to a different city. With no gang left, Kamal couldn’t pick pockets alone. He had no way of getting money for heroin. The withdrawals began. He reached a detox centre.

“Kamal is one of crores of heroin addicts in India,” says doctors at NDDTC. “Unfortunately, the previous national level user survey was conducted only in 2000-01,” says NDDTC head Dr Rajat Ray. Today, we have no idea how many heroin addicts there might be in India.” The NDDTC released figures last year based on a survey of a sample size of 25,000 people seeking treatment at central government detoxification centres. Leaving aside alcoholics, heroin addicts formed the biggest section: 60 percent non-alcoholic drug users sought treatment.

HEROIN MADE in India and sold to addicts is mostly smack or brown sugar. It looks like brown powder. When made it has a purity ranging between 20 and 60 percent. The purity of heroin indicates the percentage of diacetylmorphine (the chemical name for heroin) in it. It is determined by the care and time taken to make the heroin. It is the purity of heroin that determines its price. A kilo of Indian heroin sells for between Rs. 7 and Rs. 15 lakh to wholesalers. They then adulterate it with what they call ‘cut’ or substances like alprazolam and dye to make 15 kilos out of one, and sell it again.

 Image  Image  Image  Image
1. The poppy pod is ‘lanced’ or cut expertly by a special knife with three to six blades 2. First drops of opium coming out of the pod to be collected the next day 3. The pod is cut in the direction facing the sun so that a film can form on the opium when it emerges 4. The end user of the heroin, which usually takes 11-15 hours to processn

Last photo on the right: GP Awasthi

The new buyer repeats this process. Finally, the heroin that goes down this chain into the streets of India has an average purity of about two percent. It is sold in most places for 100 per ‘puria’, or a light paper packet weighing a few grams.

“While this may decrease the high, it doesn’t affect the addictive nature of the smack,” says former NCB additional director general Om Prakash. “Try brown sugar for a few days at a stretch — and you’re hooked.” If you’re willing to pay more and go to areas where heroin is made, you can get heroin of a higher purity. Says Prakash: “The adulteration and consequent marketing of smack is driven by specific ‘customer segments’. Areas of high student population will have smack of a higher purity, and those with impoverished populace will have a lower purity.”

Other heroin seized in India comes from the AfPak region. This has a purity of 60 percent to 85 percent, and costs 1 crore a kilo. It looks like white powder or white crystals. Most of this heroin travels out of that region, using India as a transit zone. Six hundred and twenty-six kilos heroin were seized in India in 2010, 5,104 kilos in the past five years. Officials at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimate that the actual heroin in the market would be 10 times the amount seized.NCB officials estimate that half of the heroin seized is made in and supplied to India (the rest being from AfPak). This would mean over 22,000 kilos of heroin has been consumed in India over the past five years.

Fact Nugget 2: 626 kilos of heroin were seized in India in 2010, 5,104 kilos in the past five years. The actual heroin in the market is thought to be 10 times that amount

Most of this heroin has been seized at wholesale purity — of between 20 percent and 60 percent. This means that this would have been adulterated into many more kilos before it reached the streets. Going by the prices mentioned, this would generate a yearly turnover for the heroin industry running into many thousands of crores. NCB officials say most of this profit goes to the heroin makers and wholesalers.

BUT TO make heroin you need opium, which comes from poppy. This brings us back to India’s Golden Crescent. Why did India’s drug lords choose to mastermind illicit poppy cultivation over such vast areas — instead of continuing to divert opium from licit cultivation? “Since 2004, the area licensed for the cultivation of poppy was cut by over half,” says Ashok, deputy narcotics commissioner, Central Bureau of Narcotics (CBN). It gives out licenses for growing licit poppy in India. He adds: “This was because the government decided it had enough opium stock left over.”

The area licensed for poppy cultivation in the crop year 2003-2004 was 21,141 hectares. In 2004-2005 this went down to 8,770 hectares. By 2007-2008, only 4,680 hectares were licensed for licit poppy cultivation. Alongside, 1,820 acres of illicit poppy cultivation were detected in 2007- 2008. In 2008-2009, it was 5,532 acres and in 2009-2010, 7620.5 acres.

Here are the figures for illicit poppy cultivation destroyed in nine Indian states in 2010, as well as the districts where NCB intelligence reports indicate poppy might be grown in 2011.

• Jammu & Kashmir, 417.65 acres. Poppy crop is suspected in Anantnag, Pulwama, Doda, Shopian, Budgam, Kawani, Awantipura, Kulgam, Srinagar, Baramulla and Gandharbal

• Himachal Pradesh, 532.72 acres. The districts affected are Kullu, Kangra, Mandi, Shimla, Chamba and Sirmaur

• Uttarakhand, 428 acres. The districts here are Uttarkashi, Tehri Garhwal, Dehradun and Nainital

• Bihar, 5.15 acres. The districts under the agency scanner are Rohtas, Aurangabad, Gaya, Bhojpur, Nawada, Jamui, Katihar and Munger. This means far more cultivation could be taking place

• Jharkhand, 208.07 acres. The districts are Chatra, Lohardaga, Gumla, Simdega, Sahibganj, Chouparan, Hazaribag, Latehar, Ithkhori, Ranchi, Kodarma, Giridih, Bokaro, Khunti, Ramgarh, Chaibasa and Palamu

• West Bengal, the maximum, 3941.13 acres. The districts are Uttar Dinajpur, Bankura, Malda, Burdwan, Birbhum, Midnapore, Murshidabad, Howrah, Cooch Behar and Nadia

• Manipur, 850 acres. Districts: Churachandpur, Chandel, Tamenglong, Senapati and Ukhrul

• Arunachal Pradesh, the second highest, 1,237 acres. The districts are Lohit, Tirup, Anjaw, Upper Siang and Changlang

• Karnataka, 0.5 acres, the lowest. But, suspect districts of Bijapur, Shimoga, Bidar, Bellary, Chitradurga, Tumkur, Hassan, Kolar, Chikkaballapuram and Chamrajnagar are expected to yield much more this year

JUST WHAT do these acres mean? For perspective, it took us a month to find the fields where huge illicit poppy cultivation was detected last year in West Bengal. This is because poppy, sown in October and reaped in March, is impossible to tell at this stage from perfectly licit crops that it is often camouflaged with. Finally, a network of informers, former drug lords and intelligence officers lead us to a local guide we pick up from a bus stop opposite the Dubrapur police station in Birbhum district. A lean short man gestures directions to the driver without speaking a word. He is always turning back anxiously to ensure we are not being followed. Two kilometres later, he signals that we stop. We walk a bit and then cross a rivulet that is irrigating some fields. Poppy fields.

The leaves of poppy plants look like cabbage leaves. They are being grown on tracts of land, strewn around the rivulet, adding up to a bigha (a bigha = 0.329 acres in West Bengal). A Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) official says this bigha can yield 3.5 kilos of opium, which can be converted into 225 grams of 80 percent purity heroin. Going by this, 7620.5 acres, where poppy cultivation has been detected in 2010, would yield over 80,000 kilos of opium — and over 5,000 kilos of heroin.

To protect the plants from flooding, they have been planted on raised ridges. These are sensitive plants. Besides flooding, moisture can also kill them; moisture breeds fungi. Dry winds will shrivel them. So, some of these tracts have been hedged in by Kashful, a local crop five times the size of a poppy plant. To shield them, and prevent people from noticing them when they flower towards the end of January

One plant, however, has already sprung the season’s first flower. It looks white and incandescent in the afternoon sun. In 15 days this field will be full of such flowers. Mingled with white would be specks of blue and pink. “They look like a sea of tulips,” says a villager who is around. “It looks like Switzerland on television.” He adds, shaking his head: “If only they didn’t extract the atta.” Opium, in these parts is called ‘postor atta’.

By February end these petals will fall, giving way to a green pod. This pod will be ‘lanced’ or cut expertly by a special knife with three to six blades. Expertly, because each pod will be touched first to gauge whether it is ripe. Then it will be scored from top to bottom so the opium flowing out doesn’t touch the blade. Equal space has to be left between each cut for more lancing over the next two days. The pod will be cut in the direction facing the sun so a film can form on the opium when it emerges. Most importantly, the incision has to be 1 millimetre deep. Any deeper and the opium will drip onto the ground. Any shallower and it will refuse to flow.

Our guide points to a pair of hills near the fields and speaks his first word: “Maobaadi”. Maoist territory begins just after these hills, all the way into Jharkhand which is 40 km away. The guide says many more poppy fields can be found beyond these hills, and at Khairasole (which also has a huge Maoist presence), 50 km away. But he refuses to take us to these places. “Maoist land is out of bounds for me,” he says. “It is too huge a risk.”

An officer says, after insisting that he should not be named, Maoists probably charge protection money from heroin traffickers for operating and growing opium in areas under their influence — as they do from every entrepreneur. The traffickers on their part are more than willing to pay up. As a result, areas marked ‘Maoist’ by authorities are safe havens for drug lords to function in — for a price. Our guide also adds that poppy is a sure cash crop for poor villagers. So the Maoists, who protect the illicit poppy fields, are seen to be acting in their interest. Addicts dying in far-off towns are not of immediate concern to the Maoists.

Maoism isn’t the only problem the NCB faces in detecting these fields. “We use satellite imagery, intelligence gathering and past records of destruction to track illicit poppy cultivation,” says OPS Malik, NCB Director General. “The resolution of satellite imagery last year has been far better than in the years before.” But satellite imagery comes with a catch. Images are difficult to interpret. UNODC officials, who are helping Indian agencies with satellite imagery technology, claim: “In Thailand it took nearly a decade for satellite imagery to yield results — because they had to connect the images with their topography. In India we expect good results in two years or so.”

Fact Nugget 3: The purity of heroin determines its price, that is percentage of diacetylmorphine. A kilo of Indian heroin sells for between 7 lakh and 15 lakh to wholesalers

“Satellite imagery is only the first step — an indicator,” says Malik. “For instance, sunflower fields look much like poppy fields on satellite images. So we have to keep sending our officers on ground to verify.” But there are not many officers either. The strength of the ncb now rests at 673 to monitor an entire nation. Malik hopes to take this beyond 1,000 “soon”. Also, NCB officials say the local police are often working with poppy cultivators and so don’t inform on them. The field we discovered in Birbhum, for instance, is only 2 km from the Dubrajpur Police Station. Other poppy fields in Birbhum come under the jurisdiction of the Kankortala, Bolpore, Khairasole and Elambazar police stations.

THE DISCOVERY of unbelievably vast stretches of illicit poppy in West Bengal’s Nadia and Murshidabad districts in 2007 shone the spotlight on illicit poppy cultivation. These were around the villages of Choto Chandghar, Kulgachi, Choto Nolonda, Boro Nolonda and Beur. We drive to these villages, with the DRI officer who discovered these poppy plantations — who wishes to stay unnamed. He found “continuous poppy fields on a 50 km highway stretch from Kulgachi to Boro Nolonda — save for some patches where there were markets or settlements”. At one spot, he found poppy fields growing for “as far as the eye could see”. He found poppy plots “the size of professional soccer fields”. He then started checking on neighbouring Murshidabad and found even more fields. In Murshidabad’s border patch of Jalangi he found “poppy growing in every second village”.

Compare this to licit cultivation. The Department of Revenue released its opium policy on 29 September 2010 that says each licensed cultivator is now allowed to cultivate poppy on 35 ares (35 ares = 3,500 square meters). In illicit fields, landlords would contract an average of 10 bighas (13,333 square metres) for illicit poppy cultivation. In Baul, a village in Murshidabad, 200 bighas were used for poppy cultivation. How did such vast stretches escape detection? Investigations unearthed a meticulous network of corruption.
•Those cultivating poppy would pay Rs. 15,000 to Rs. 20,000 a bigha as advance rent to a landlord. Most other cultivators paid them such rent only after harvest. As 10 bighas was the average size of land contracted, Rs. 1,50,000 was the minimum advance many landlords received

•The sharecroppers and landless labour who grew the poppy on this land would be paid Rs. 15,000 a bigha too — to be distributed among those working on that bigha

•Police stations were apparently paid bribes of up to Rs. 5,000 for each bigha in their jurisdiction. Police stations in rural areas have vast jurisdictions with hundreds of bighas under each station

•Panchayat members were said to have been paid between Rs. 5,000 and Rs. 10,000 a bigha, depending on the size of a panchayat. This ‘egalitarian’ system made sure that panchayat members of villages that had less land didn’t feel left out. So, both the police stations and the panchayats earned lakhs of rupees

Finally, before lancing and collecting the opium, a workforce of farmhands was trained for this specialised task. A farm worker here normally earns Rs. 100 a day at best. These farm workers were paid Rs. 400. Even after all this expenditure, the masterminds made Rs. 50,000 from each bigha.

This information was passed on to the CBN, but drug enforcement officers in the area claim: “By the time we acted on it, nearly 80 percent opium was extracted.” There was also immense local protest against the poppy plant demolitions. Local Congress MP Adhir Chaudhury, for instance, apparently didn’t know that poppy in India cannot be grown without a licence. He made an agitated public statement against this “bhaat maara” (stealing the rice) of poor peasants. It was only after the implications of poppy were explained to him clearly that he backtracked.

Landlords and sharecroppers were arrested and granted bail. But the principal masterminds or their men weren’t to be found in these areas. The extraction of opium from a poppy field takes only three days. They came in for three days, took whatever opium they could, and left. Was any opium recovered? In these parts, opium after extraction is filled in sealed mud pots after adding a salt preservative. The pots are then buried at fixed locations to be retrieved later — like pots of gold in a Panchatantra tale. At times, when they are not collected, rumours abound of a pot of opium worth lakhs of rupees. This prompts locals to go on a treasure hunt.

And what of the poppy cultivation? It has continued since 2007 in a systematic way. Every year it has been shifted to two new districts. In the crop year 2006-07 poppy cultivation was concentrated in Murshidabad and Nadia. In 2008-2009 it shifted to Malda, Uttor Dinajpur and Dokhin Dinajpur. In 2009-2010 it’s been at Birbhum and Bardhaman. This crop year, 2010-11, a sea of poppies is expected to bloom in Midnapore and Bankura. These happen to be areas under Maoist influence. They also happen to be growing the opium of the masses.

BACK TO Lalgola, where this story began. An important arrest has been made. The NCB has caught Habib-ur-Rehman, a heroin kingpin, with 4.81 kilos heroin and Rs. 17,83,060 cash. “They didn’t declare all they seized,” claims Aykhatha. “They had seized 100 kilos heroin, and Rs. 75 lakh in cash.” He touches his neck and swears he’s saying the truth. An officer gets 10 percent of the value of the resale value of a legitimate good. An informer will get 20 percent.

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1. The porous Indo-Bangladesh border at Jalangi, where morphine enters Bangladesh to be converted into heroin 2. A BSF jawan keeps vigil, a rare sight along the border at Jalangi 3. A female carrier who is on her way to Bangladesh across the river. She was carrying Phensidyl, a banned cough syrup that is Bangladesh’s staple drug 4. 250 litres of acetic anhydride bound for Bangladesh, seized by Customs

Aniruddha Banerjee

But for heroin, an informer gets Rs. 20,000 and an officer Rs. 10,000 for every kilo of heroin that has 99 percent purity. For heroin less pure, the rewards decrease proportionately. A kilo of 99 percent heroin would cost at least Rs. 1 crore. This would mean 0.2 percent and 0.1 percent for an informer and an officer respectively. So there is always temptation for an officer not to declare some of the heroin seized. He’d want to sell it back into the market. And there are officers who have done this in the past.

We pass by Habib-ur-Rehman’s house at Uttor Lotiper Para, a Lalgola village. It looks like a haveli, and stands out among the village houses. Habib is 50 years old. He owned a brick kiln, and was preparing to contest an election as president of the Lalgola Brick Kiln Owner’s Association when he was arrested.

This — the intermingling of crime and respectability — is the story of many big players at Lalgola. Another person who’s continuously watched by agencies is Jairul Khan. Informers have named him. The NCB suspects him. But no one has been able to prove anything. Khan owns a huge building right at the entrance to Lalgola area, with an MRF showroom on the ground floor. Not even the intelligence officials can tell when Khan is trading, and when he’s not. As an informer puts it: “He’s extra cautious not to get his hands dirty. He operates through others, and never keeps any stuff with him.”

There are other names under the scanner too. First names. Nick names. The surnames are not known, and irrelevant to officials and traffickers alike. One name is enough in Lalgola to recognise a heroin trafficker by. Full names come into question only when they are arrested. The names are Zia, Hemraj (he operates with his brother Satyanarain who connects him to Rajasthan), Chobi and JD (intelligence officers claim JD’s initials are enough to identify him).

“Lalgola has traditionally been a trafficker’s haven — because it’s a border town.” Says Shankar, Additional Director General NCB — in charge of the east zone that includes Lalgola: “But heroin smuggling brought it almost overnight wealth.” DRI officials say: “People suddenly started wearing better clothes, building better houses and buying the latest bikes. And we knew something else was on.”

EVEN AS far back as the year 2000, drug lords from Barabanki would use Lalgola as a crucial transit point for Bangladesh and Southeast Asia, as well as for southern and eastern India. Even today heroin travels from Lalgola to Kolkata, Bhubaneswar, Hyderabad and key towns in Bihar. Trafficking in Lalgola happens in trucks and buses with cavities in them to hold the heroin. Sometimes the heroin has been transported in ambassador cars with klaxons on them, or in jeeps marked ‘police’. Drug enforcement officers say “this leads to comic situations where we go to great lengths to check every ‘VIP vehicle’.”

Aykhatha’s words “Lalgola is independent” still perplex us. Where would Lalgola traffickers learn how to make heroin from morphine? NCB officers say Barabanki is “outsourcing its knowhow”. This means that apart from the drug lords, “independent heroin experts” go to various hotspots in the nine states where poppy is grown and teach them how to make morphine and heroin. They even make the first few batches for them. They do this for a “professional fee” ranging from Rs. 20,000 to Rs. 50,000.

Even so, an essential precursor for making heroin is acetic anhydride. According to a 1993 Regulation Of Controlled Substances Order this is one of the five key precursor chemicals the NCB monitors. So, procuring it is difficult. Barabanki has easily access to this because two of India’s biggest acetic anhydride factories are at Dhampur and Gajraula in Uttar Pradesh. Where would Lalgola get this from? Officials say that a channel of acetic anhydride smuggling has opened up along these nine states that make up our ‘Golden Crescent’. So while procuring this for Lalgola would be difficult, it isn’t impossible.

Finally, where would heroin makers at Lalgola make the heroin? Acetic anhydride gives out a pungent smell for miles around. Heroin making at Barabanki was inside forest areas, and then inside a system of joint houses that were designed for this purpose — to keep in this smell. There is no forest area in Lalgola. Each house has been built apart from the other. The bamboo groves used for making morphine will barely keep in the smell of acetic anhydride.

On 18 September 2009, Lalgola customs seized 250 litres of acetic anhydride which was being taken to Bangladesh. Why? Add to this, endless reports of large quantities of morphine being smuggled into Bangladesh. Intelligence officials say Bangladesh isn’t known to make heroin. Bangladesh’s main fix is Phensidyl. “They drink more Phensidyl than alcohol,” says an informer. Earlier, heroin was sent to Bangladesh in large quantities primarily because Bangladesh was used as a transit point. But that traffickers in Bangladesh will go to the trouble of making brown sugar, all the way from morphine, is unlikely.

WHAT SOME officials suspect instead is that most of Lalgola’s morphine goes into Bangladesh, along with the acetic anhydride. It is converted into heroin in villages there, and brought back into India. The conversion is done by Indians who have shifted just across the border, and sometimes by those who carry the drug through. Can this be so easy? We move to the border at Lalgola. A wire fence has been erected across it. A part of the land on the other side of the fence belongs to Indian farmers, because the fence has been erected 200 metres into this land.

This is an ‘open border’, which means that the fence has gates which are opened at fixed intervals for Indian villagers to travel through and farm their land. The Bangladesh side has no fence 200 metres in. There is only a pillar in between — indicating the ‘zero point’ where the border really lies.

The wire along the fence has been cut — in many places. We convince the BSF guards manning the fence that we’ve been sent by the government to do a security survey. Why has the wire along the fence been cut so frequently? The guards launch into a series of complaints. “Our shift is supposed to be for eight hours — but we’re made to work for 48 hours.” “There is no light here — so in the dark it’s impossible to see anything”. “There’s fog at night too — in winter. But no fog lights.”

As a result, this fence is cut regularly by using simple wire clippers so people and goods can pass through. In stricter borders like those with Pakistan these fences are electrified — so smugglers have to toss their wares over the fence at a coordinated time to facilitate smuggling. Here, the smuggler goes in himself — along with his wares — into Bangladesh. Then, suspect the agencies, he makes the heroin in a hut inside Bangladesh. The officers there are bribed easily because they don’t care — they know the heroin made would go right back into India.

At Kaliachowk, a large section of the fenced border is actually unmanned. Finally we arrive at Jalangi — which a BSF Major posted there calls “the most unbelievable border I’ve seen.” This is because at Jalangi, the zero point is at the centre of the river Padma. And Padma is a fickle river. It changed its course drastically in 1994 and then in 2002, redefining the entire border. Even since then, it alters its course at least slightly every year. Also, because of an Indo-Bangla agreement, many Bangladeshi citizens have land on the Indian side, and vice-versa. These citizens are allowed to visit their land and work on it.

Consequently the border at Jalangi is a ‘porous border’ — with no fencing. People travel in noukos or country boats across the river at will. NCB officers say heroin traffickers often use women and families to carry their wares through. Sometimes women with babies. Many heroin seizures have been made from the base of a baby’s milk bottle. When the BSF guards stop them, these carriers say they are being assaulted.

This porous border is an ideal place for heroin traffickers to function through. Morphine and acetic anhydride can go into Bangladesh. Heroin can come out and back into India. While we take pictures a child points out a petty carrier — a middle-aged village woman carrying Phensidyl into Bangladesh tucked inside her saree. She sees the child pointing to her and understands what’s going on. She rushes into the boat that will carry her across.


Pray, It’s ‘Juliaji’

Rishi Majumder sneaks into the Eat, Pray, Love sets at Hari Mandir Ashram, Pataudi, to find ashramites and a desi cool Julia Roberts living the ‘the world’s a family’ maxim

Swami Dharam Dev and Julia Roberts

Hollywood Superstar Julia Roberts’ helicopter, landing near Hari Mandir Ashram, Pataudi, has kicked off quite the Haryanvi dust storm. She’s playing Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat Pray Love, a bestselling memoir where Gilberts eats in Italy, prays in India and loves in Bali. The controversies are: Does Roberts really have a gun toting battalion guarding her? Why did the ashram shoo away devotees during Navratri? And imperatively: Will this film misrepresent our great nation in any way?

Film crew have been quoted saying “media access is being denied because the film’s scheduled for release in 2011 and it’s too early to let out what’s in it”. Let out what’s in it? They’re filming an autobiographical bestseller for God’s sake (whatever He has to say about this). Not only do millions of readers know what’s in it, those who’ve seen Gilbert’s interviews know what’s after it too.  A more plausible reason is that they’re filming these serene spiritual sequences, and they don’t want journalists turning it into a reality show. “I’m obviously not a journalist (or not obviously a journalist),” is what I tell the three (apparently unarmed) guards at the ashram gate. They don’t look like ex- NSG or SPG forces (as was the scoop). More like ex- akhada pehelwaans (mud-pit wrestlers). Maybe the commandoes are camouflaged. Still, I can’t carry a camera. Shoot!

Swami Dharam Dev, Ashram President, is no stranger to celebrity. He ran for the Lok Sabha in 2004, and continues to mix with politicians and media-men, and now film stars. “We didn’t deny devotees, or the press, entry,” he argues. “We simply said that they should inform us from beforehand, so a tour can be organized systematically. And no cameras allowed. I asked the crew to shoot during Navratri because that’s when ashram students have holidays.” The Swami quotes classic Sanskrit diktat ‘Vasudev Kutumbakam’ (meaning ‘the world’s a family’) and tells me we should trust Westerners to spread what is Indian. He also cites Max Muller as a glowing example of how responsibly a foreigner can document native culture. His final argument for allowing the film crew in is: “No ‘ashram’ can refuse anyone ‘ashray’, or shelter”. He says many had advised him to ask for more than the Rs 4 lakh donation received, but he didn’t. Mid-conversation, he looks beyond me to murmur, “Juliaji…”

I miss her at first, because she has a slight, if tall, frame (or maybe that’s what days of sanyas does to you). She’s wearing a pale salwaar kameez and is almost merging into people she’s with. Until, a little girl runs up to her, and she grins. More Big Miss Sunshine than Monalisa Smile. You realize in a Pataudi ashram what makes Pretty Woman work worldwide. ‘Vasudev Kutumbakam’ it is…

“She loves talking to children,” the Swami’s grinning too. “Not grown-ups though.” Sure. I wasn’t going to run up to her. Then the Swami tells me how he gave Robert’s kids their Hindu names. The eldest son was named Ganesh – because that’s who every Hindu prayer begins with, and his twin sister Lakshmi – because Diwali’s coming up. And her youngest son Krishna, because, “like Bal Krishna, he was being naughty and not letting me tie the mauli (sacred thread) on his hand.” Sweet. Maybe if husband Daniel Moder came in and threw a fit, he’d name him Mahadev.

I go off alone around the ashram and film set. It’s impossible to tell them apart. What seems like a part of the ashram’s first floor, for instance, is a set made entirely of plywood – and you won’t know it till you knock on the walls. I bump into the Swami here, and he shows me a room that’s supposed to be Gilbert’s. Peering into this room is positively haunting. There’s a bed, a bed-side table, shelves, clothes strewn around and lots of dusty books. So, I’m in a real ashram, with a real Swami, peeping into the room of a real Gilbert – that’s actually unreal. It confounds the Swami too. He’s refused to act in the film, but keeps catching Swamis dressed like him to ask them if they’re for real or reel.

I walk out, past actor Richard Jenkins (whose character is called Richard too, the only real name Gilbert’s used in the Indian section – the others are pseudonyms) and the room where Roberts (Yes! The real Roberts!) is resting before her shoot, to a magnificent meditation hall that is definitely a set. It’s ornately carved, out of wood. I ask an ashram helper if the floor is a part of the set too. He replies in the affirmative and thumps his feet on ply to prove what he’s saying, adding: “This was actually a parking lot.” To my left is a library with portraits of Hindu Gurus on the walls, with the shelves and books in disarray because it’s been shot in. Ahead is a pleasant little garden – also made for the movie. I walk back, past the ashram office where Roberts has just shot a scene. A crew member is telling director Ryan Murphy about the “real feel” the office gave. So I guess it isn’t a set. I’m very paranoid by now and I go about the ashram tapping on walls and thumping my feet. Yes. Now I know why they wouldn’t let the press in.

I spot the Swami again and follow him to the temple terrace, where they’re shooting. The crew’s put up a temple façade that’s carved just like the meditation hall. The design is typical of South Indian temple architecture, which stands to reason. The founder of Gilbert’s ashram (located in Ganeshpuri, Thane) was from South India. The Swami sees me and leads me to a verandah: “We use this as prayer hall balcony. But I don’t know what they’re doing.” “They” are two American film crew members who’re watching a monitor to figure out scene picture quality. All they can see on their screen is a dark short haired guy, and a bearded Swami. Unreal.

Meanwhile, I hear gasps because Roberts is striding out in this gorgeous cream and green saree. She seems extremely comfortable in it, like Nalli LA just found a brand ambassador. Some locals exclaim at how Indian she’s become. Others comment on how well she’s handling the Haryana heat (…literally speaking). The ‘Indian Julia’ euphoria has erupted world over, including in its fold Nevada based ‘Hindu statesman’ Rajan Zed. They don’t seem to get that Roberts is an actress, who stays with her role while filming it sometimes. That Eat Pray Love won’t make her any more Indian, than Erin Brockovich or Sleeping WithThe Enemy made her an activist or member of a battered wives club.

Trudging towards the temple entrance, I’m shushed by frantic crew because a shot is on. I see on a monitor an intimate conversation scene between Roberts and Jenkins being filmed live. Just like HBO. Only, if I yell, they’ll have to pause.

The temple that Roberts (playing Gilbert) swept the floors of has the “real feel” that differentiates a place of meditation from a parking lot – without having to knock or thump. Beyond it is an elegant tower erected in honour of the ashram’s founder Swami Amar Dev. Gilbert climbs such a tower in one of the book’s most passionate climactic chapters.

Next to the tower is a Peepal tree that Roberts meditated under this morning for a shoot. When someone said this to the Swami, he looked puzzled. Then he said , “Oh! You mean in the naatak (play)…” That’s what he calls the film. He kept telling me the ashram students enjoyed the Ram Leela more.

This article appeared originally in Mumbai Mirror( It was also carried in Pune Mirror – front page (, Ahmedabad Mirror (, Bangalore Mirror ( and the Times Of India entertainment section ( online…

I’m not Tarannum

Devastated actress Tamanna Bhatia exposes e-mail fraud pix


Photographer: Mahesh Kumar A


Actress Tamanna Bhatia is considering legal action against cyber pranksters who have floated her pictures on the net claiming that she is Mumbai’s notorious dance bar girl Tarannum Khan.
The pictures, taken during the shooting of a Telugu film, Shree, have been popping into in-boxes across the country from someone called, appropriately enough, idle brain, saying: “Now do you understand why so many cricketers and film stars have gone mad behind her? Yes, she is Tarannum Khan, the famous bar girl, nowadays in news”.Tarannum, the crorepati bar girl, is at present in police custody while Tamanna is shooting in Hyderabad. “I cannot believe that this is happening to
me,” said a traumatised Tamanna who discovered the pictures on Tuesday afternoon. “I’ve heard of this happening to people in this line of work, but I never thought it could happen to me.” Tamanna is a first year junior college student at National College, Bandra, and is at present shooting for Shree. The actress, who claims to be only 15 – – “I started acting when I was 13” — says that she has heard of Tarannum through newspapers. “I’m just a youngster getting to know that such people and incidents exist in society,” she said during a telephone interview.
Ever since they discovered the e-mail the family has been distraught. Tamanna’s furious father, Santosh Bhatia, says his nephew forwarded the e-mail to him. “I and my son were horrified when we saw the mail,” he says, agitated. “We just didn’t know how someone
could do this.” Tamanna, who had earlier acted in an obscure Hindi movie called Chand Sa Roshan Chehra, says the pictures in the e-mail were taken during a song sequence for Shree five days ago and were distributed to the local press. Ashok Kumar, spokesperson for Shree Laxmi Productions, the producers of Shree, corroborated her claim and added that the unit was shocked that someone could do this “to a 15-year-old girl. Our entire unit is standing by her side and if we find the guy who did this we will rip him apart.”
Tamanna’s mother, who is with her in Hyderabad, is reportedly on the verge of a breakdown. “It’s just unbearable seeing her go through this,” says Kumar, “She’s almost a wreck.” Though considering legal action, Tamanna’s father said they were still unsure how to go about it.

one of the defamatory images

This article originally appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:

A life in images

Rishi Majumder

rafeeq ellias

What does a coffee table book containing 30 years of a photographer’s work represent? If Rafeeq Ellias’ career as award-winning documentary filmmaker and famous photographer provokes amazed befuddlement, then this showcase brings into focus his statement. “I would professionally restrict my skills to photography and filmmaking only.” Personally his interest zooms further into categories chosen for an upcoming exhibition on November 5 (Musuem Gallery, Chhatrapati Shivaji Museum): Travel and Portraiture. “There are overlaps between these ‘categories’,” Ellias clarifies. “Portraiture can happen while traveling or in a studio. They form a common oeuvre.” Yet traveling by itself remains an addiction, being the best way to “eliminate prejudices and bridge divides”. He also talks about how this addiction was intertwined with his photographing the ballet and opera, over a decade: “My fashion photographs prompted a dance festival company to invite me to shoot a ballet in Uzbekistan. On seeing the results, I was invited again, and again, to Eastern Europe, Russia, Hungary…”
Vying for pride of place beside the ballerinas is the depiction of communities by the maker of The Legend Of Fat Mama (on the Chinese community in Kolkata). “We have singular and multiple identities,” Ellias explains. “While the Jews in Brooklyn merge their Hungarian origin with being New Yorkers and the Punjabis in Southall with being Londoners, the Chinese in Calcutta love Luchis as much as Bengalis do.” Even more identities arise on his images with age: “I remember working with two distinct generations in England – a Punjabi grandmother who was occupied by old Hindi films on Zee, and her completely modern, nearly British granddaughter.”
The pages turn over, as does the conversation, to fashion: “This has limitations, being advertising photography. You have to work with a commercial brief.” And yet, in his portrayal of saree draped models besides rural folk wearing complementary colours, or a black model standing in sharp focus before a dissolving landscape, he adds elements to his frame as deftly as he would have captured them while photographing that suit clad Palestinian smoking a hookah, or the portrait of a poet in Gulzar. “That’s because I’m lucky to work with clients who allow me to experiment because of long standing relationship,” he answers, humbly.

This article originally appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:

A yatra for healing Bharat

Azad Bharat Rail Yatra, to celebrate 60 years of Independence and spread the idea of social enterprise, will take off from city


Photographer: Deepak Turbhekar

Shashank Mani

Shashank Mani, a management consultant, took a journey called the Azad Bharat Rail Yatra on the 50th year of Indian Independence with a train full of Indian youth bursting out of their coaches to define their country. The detour led him beyond Bharat’s latitudes to write India — A Journey Through A Healing Civilization.
Ten years later, the quest continues. The Tata Jagriti Yatra 2008, will celebrate the 60th year of our Independence by taking 400 youngsters, in the 18-25 age group, to 13 cities in 18 days from December 24, 2008 to January 10, 2009. Only, this yatra will focus on social entrepreneurship by introducing Generation Next to R K Pachauri, Bunker Roy and Kiran Bedi. Mani, now chairman, Jagriti Sewa Sansthan, tells us more…

Why does the selection procedure involve only essays instead of meetings?
The candidates are allowed to
submit essays in languages they’re comfortable with, which are translated for us.
As for meetings, some candidates are as far out as the North-East and don’t have either the means or time to come to Mumbai. And we don’t have the manpower to visit them.
We hope to develop an alumni base spread out across the country to be able to meet candidates in their hometowns.

Urban middle class youth find it difficult to connect to small town, rural or belowthe-poverty-line urban India. Social enterprise must come from those it affects.
Our target is those earning Rs 40 to 120 a day. They are not destitute, but not middle class in the sense you and I are. They have a lot of josh and want to benefit from the nine per cent GDP growth.
We want to encourage them to start their enterprises instead of looking for jobs. We also want them to have a sense of purpose – a passion
that only money can’t bring. We want 70 per cent of yatris to belong to this group — though anyone’s welcome to apply. But I suspect attaining such a participation percentage will take more awareness … and about five more yatras.

The revelatory nationalistic yatras of Gandhi and Guevara were stuff of legend. But they travelled in small groups. Such a large group will become insulated, with people interacting with each other instead of locals they visit…
That’s why we are choosing people proportionately from different states to create an Indian microcosm on the train. We’ll make sure that no two people from the same state share a compartment. This will create an undercurrent of tension — especially where language barriers exist — but we want that. So besides interactions with locals, interactions with companions will create a ‘revelatory nationalistic yatra’.
To add to this spirit, we will
have group debates on issues at hand at various destinations with respective locals involved.

You’re starting your trip from Mumbai. How does the city fit in?
Mumbai consists of a variety of people with one common denomination — enterprise. How it copes with this influx of people is still a wonder. Many on the trip would be visiting Mumbai for the first time and we’re planning to visit many sites, including Dharavi — to bring out the beauty and, sometimes, the beast that the city can be.
Discussions will centre around migration — how it adds adventure and individuality to entrepreneurship, while being a stark reminder of the deprivation that exists in the villages and small towns that these migrants come from. Discussions will also centre on how many small towns will grow into cities in the next 20 years, and how their growth must be better planned than previously.

This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:


Tendulkar’s hero or anti-hero comes on again to hammer out issues of morality and marriage


Om Katare's Sakharam

When Sakharam Binder emerged from Tendulkar’s informed imagination a couple of decades ago, he shocked a society unaware that merely 20-odd years later ‘boldness’ in art and media will be passé. Unlike Gidhade, however, Sakharam did not mean to shock, it meant to speak. What about, is still open to investigation.
Those who did not go on a rampage to ban the play for its ‘anti-social’ and ‘immoral’ outlook, were quick to praise it for its central character who challenged middle-class morality and its central institution – marriage. The rebel hero became mythical in his immortality over the years, as the play was performed countlessly in many different languages.But, he was somewhat simplified and restricted by his familiarity.
Is he really a frank-speaking hero who
knows his mind? Does he really care so little about what society thinks? Why then does he justify his stand by saying he simply does openly what others enjoy secretly? Makrand Deshpande, who recently wrote and directed Sakharam Ki Khoj Mein Hawaldar, has been fascinated by our hero too. He feels that Sakharam is a fallen man in the end. His ego reveals that beneath his rebellious bravado there was little but basic instinct. “Everyone would like to lead, but only some can,” Deshpande says.
In killing his latest lover girl, Champa for her ‘infidelity’, does Sakharam fall prey to the morality he critiques? Or simply reveal that the foundation of moral codes runs deep up unto the core of human psychology and instinct?
Or is Champa the real hero of this play? His female alter-ego displays more compassion and strength of conviction. Her rebellion rings truer. She dies for challenging his ‘masculine ego’ – for revealing his frailties to himself. She is a rare Tendulkar heroine as she goes all the way with her rebellion, not coming around in the end after exposing male hypocrisy and domination.

Marriage is also a centre point of religious orthodoxy. Is that the real target
here? Sakharam is a Brahmin and Lakshmi, his wife-like partner, a staunch Hindu. They commit a murder most foul, unable to stomach Champa’s freedom of spirit. Lakshmi is almost a right-wing crowd pleaser in her meek modesty, piety to her husband, her prejudice against “musalmans”, her moralising, and her devotion to her idols. But perhaps she is only using her religious beliefs as an excuse to secure her interests.
Tendulkar never judged his characters. He did not justify them, thereby leaving room for interpretation. Direc
tors are still eager to do their own version of Sakharam. Om Katare who is reviving his production, feels it is an excellent creative exercise for an actor and director. Jaimini Pathak, who directed a reading of His Fifth Woman – a prelude to Sakharam Binder, found himself discovering layers to the relationship between characters that he had not previously considered. However, the innumerable ‘versions’ hardly ever attempt a truly fresh interpretation of the play. It is not easy to sum up who Sakharam really is. The only certainty is that he is among a lot of other things, a victim of his own dramatic potential.
Sakharam Binder directed by Om Katare plays at the Nehru Festival today, 7.30 pm.


This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:



Photographer: Mukesh Panchal

A D Singh and Kim Sharma

So Olive celebrates its fifth birthday. Like any spoilt rich brat with many stepfathers (read: AD Singh, Henry Tham Jr, the singer Sagrika, Martin D’Costa, and Anupam Mayekar’ s baby), this five year old’s popularity cuts across the cross section. Digging into the authentic Italian fare at this otherwise contemporary Mediterranean restaurant were Kabir and Pooja Bedi (obliging cameras with joint interviews), Hiten Tejwani and Gauri Pradhan, Astad Daeboo (playing Spartan tastefully in an arty white kurta), Suchitra Pillai (Mirror Question Of The Week: Which party has Pillai not graced of late?), Tanya (with yet another escort… never say die spirit…like the Aussie cricket team) and the like.

This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: