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