On June 17, a small team of police personnel from Khatkhati police station in Assam’s Karbi Anglong district lay in wait of a “queen” at Janak Pukhuri, a small village bordering Nagaland. This wasn’t a receiving party for royalty, though. They were waiting for Th. Paone, the “queen” of a drug empire. Though unsure if she would venture out on her own from her den in Nagaland’s Dimapur, a mere 10 km away from Janak Pukhuri, the police hoped that their bait—an order through a decoy customer for a large consignment of drugs—would prove to be too enticing to ignore. By this time, the police had put in nearly three months of work to penetrate Paone’s inner circle.
She eventually did arrive with 164 packets of heroin worth Rs 7 crore in a modest Maruti Alto. Dressed in traditional Manipuri attire, the soft-speaking, slightly-built Paone barely looked the part of a dreaded drug queen. But this 50-year-old was responsible for 60 per cent of all illegal drugs entering Assam via NH 36—connecting Dimapur and Nagaon in Assam—and NH 39, connecting Manipur’s Moreh and Assam’s Numaligarh.
Paone is among the 2,730 drug lords operating in the northeastern states who were arrested by the Assam police during a special drive against drugs launched after Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma took charge of the state in May. Within the first 100 days, the police had seized narcotics worth Rs 198 crore. The state has recorded a 65 per cent rise in the number of drug-related arrests in the first eight months of 2021 over the last year. However, the state government believes this might just be the tip of the iceberg. “If we assume the seized drug was just 10 per cent of the entire quantity smuggled into Assam, we can say that the trade in illegal drugs in the state is worth nearly Rs 5,000 crore annually,” says Sarma.
At the root of this drug menace is the region’s geographical proximity to Myanmar which, along with Lao PDR and Thailand, belongs to the Golden Triangle of the drug trade.
A 2019 study by two JNU professors, based on the National Family Health Survey 20152016 (NFHS-4), found that, at 70.8 per cent, the prevalence of substance abuse among northeastern men is 20 percentile points higher than the rest of India. The region accounts for 8 per cent of India’s total geographical area but 41 of the country’s 272 districts vulnerable to drug addiction are in this region.
This addiction is leading to an alarming rise in HIV cases in the northeast—the trend of intravenous use of drugs among those between 15 and 20 years being the key factor. A report by the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) last year found that the AIDS-related mortality per 100,000 population in India was estimated to be the highest in Manipur (36.86), followed by Mizoram (28.34) and Nagaland (26.20).
At the root of this drug menace is the region’s geographical proximity to Myanmar which, along with Lao PDR and Thailand, belongs to the Golden Triangle of the drug trade. Northeast India shares a 1,643 km border with Myanmar, responsible for 95 per cent of the total opium production in the triangle and, according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration, 80 per cent of the heroin production in Southeast Asia and 60 per cent of the world’s supply. As per the International Narcotics Control Board and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Myanmar is also one of Asia’s main sources of illegal production of methamphetamine, or the “crazy drug” Yaba. Moreover, Myanmar supplying opium has led to a massive prevalence of opioid use in Northeast India. In states like Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram, over 20 per cent of the total population has used opioids at least once in a year, as opposed to the national average of just over 2 per cent, as per a 2019 report, ‘Magnitude of Substance Use in India’. Since 2018, the recovery of heroin has seen a surge of 485 per cent; the police seized 380 per cent more opium during the same period and more than 8 million Yaba tablets have been recovered in Assam in the past four years.
From Myanmar, narcotic substances reach Assam via various routes originating mostly in Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram. The Assam government even claimed that a drug nexus operating in Mizoram had a role in the territorial clash between the two neighbouring states in August so as to divert the Assam Police’s attention from the narcotics trade. Mizoram has denied the charge and claimed it made record seizures of methamphetamine earlier this year. However, there is an acknowledgement that Mizoram, with its shared borders with Myanmar and Bangladesh, makes it an easy transit route. Some drug producers also use the remote areas of Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh for opium cultivation. Several mafia groups from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have also begun cultivating opium in Assamese districts like Barpeta, South Salmara and Kamrup. Since May, Assam Police has destroyed cannabis growing in 31 bighas of land and opium in 15 bighas.
Assam, though, is not the destination of the drug trade. Only a fifth of the drugs entering or produced in Assam are sold in the state. According to police sources, the state is used as a transit point by traffickers transporting drugs to other parts of India and to Bangladesh. And that’s what makes the Assam government’s drive against drugs significant beyond the geographical borders of the state. While it has found massive public support, the state police force has also earned some scepticism. Several critics have pointed out that Assam’s low conviction rate in drug cases—just over one per cent against the national 42 per cent—is a big hurdle. A Rajya Sabha answer in 2020 revealed that only 10 of the 1,237 individuals arrested in 2019 were convicted. But Bhaskar Jyoti Mahanta, director general of Assam Police, believes that the situation is set to improve dramatically. The police force is working on multiple corrective measures, such as the creation of four model FIRs to handle different situations of search, seizure and arrest, comprehensive training for investigating officers, circulation of detailed guidelines in all police stations and monitoring all drug-related cases by top level officers.
But there are other worrying factors. The arrest of two police personnel, including a deputy superintendent of police, for their alleged involvement with drug traffickers, has led many to believe that the current operations are just targeting small players as the arrest of the kingpins may expose the nexus between the drug cartel and top officials. One police officer recounted how two of the most notorious drug lords in Badarpur and Patharkandi in Karimganj district, bordering Mizoram, have escaped the police despite adequate evidence against them. Even an internal report of Assam police acknowledges this possibility: “These arrests are an indication that there is a nexus between a section of law enforcement officials in these illegal activities”. Mahanta, however, is confident in his plans. “That we are not sparing even our own is a straight message to anyone involved in this heinous crime,” he says.
In fact, to send a larger socio-political message, the Assam government conducted a two-day-long drugs disposal event at four locations in the state—Diphu, Golaghat, Nagaon and Hojai—all transit points for distribution of narcotics. Seized drugs worth Rs 170 crore were destroyed, with the CM himself setting them on fire. “There have been instances when seized drugs have made way to drug traffickers. By destroying these, the government has preempted that. It’s also sending out a larger message,” says a senior leader of the ruling BJP. While such spectacles may have earned the government social and political mileage, the success of the war against drugs in Assam will depend on sustained and transparent action.