WE PARK the car on the side of a dirt track and make our way up the mountain side. My Naga guides run up the slope while I sluggishly follow them. We walk through fields, with crops of vegetables planted by the villagers. Half way up, a pungent and slightly citrusy smell hits me. A shotgun slung over his shoulders, one of the guides turns to me. Smiling, he points into the distance, and says, “Marijuana, as far as the eyes can see.”
We had driven five hours from Maram, a quaint town in Manipur’s Senapati district, for this. Senapati is one of the four hill districts of Manipur. It is marijuana now; in a few months, there would also be ripe opium in these fields. This was the other side of the Northeast I had not seen.
Owing to geographical compulsions, Manipur has become a source, destination and transit point for opium, heroin, marijuana and other psychotropic drugs.
Over December 2012-January 2013, this correspondent was given access to the drug fields and drug cartels operating in the state. To protect those who opened the doors and granted access, the correspondent chooses to remain unnamed.
This was much before 24 February, when the Manipur Police arrested Colonel Ajay Chowdhury, a Defence PRO posted in Imphal and five others, for allegedly carrying Rs 25 crore worth of contraband drugs. Two days later, Saokholet Haokip, son of former tourism and power minister TN Haokip, was also picked up, as a car used for transporting the drugs allegedly belonged to him. This bust highlighted the complex networks that prop up Manipur’s booming drug industry.
Located on the Indo-Myanmar border, Manipur sits on the edge of the so-called Golden Triangle of the drug trade, made up by Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. This proximity to the world’s second largest opium and heroin producing region has played havoc with the small hill state.
For instance, though Manipur’s 2.7 million people comprise only 0.8 percent of India’s population, the state accounts for 8 percent of the country’s HIV-positive cases, with intravenous drug users making up as much as 76 percent of the cases in Manipur. Over 90 percent of the victims are in the 15-40 age group.
To understand the mechanics of the drug trade, TEHELKA met the head of a cartel that transports drugs from Manipur to Dimapur in Nagaland. In her late 30s and casually dressed in jeans and a white shirt, this woman clung to her shiny leather handbag as she entered the cramped room and took a seat.
“We are scheduled to transport 5 kg of heroin to Nagaland for one of the underground insurgent groups,” she says. “We buy heroin at Rs 14 lakh per kg and sell it at Rs 16 lakh a kg. This deal alone will get us a profit of around Rs 8 lakh.
She explains how the drugs — mainly heroin, opium and marijuana — is transported, and how most of it comes from Manipur’s hill districts, eastern Nagaland and Myanmar.
As with any such operation, the collusion of government officials is a prerequisite. The woman says that though she has not herself worked with any security personnel, she is aware of others who have. “I have not worked with anyone from the army so far,” she says. “But I know of people who do. As there are a lot of Nagas working in the army and the Border Security Force (BSF), it is easy to build contacts within the forces. Since military convoys are on the move every day and the vehicles are not stopped, sometimes they are the safest places on the highway.”
To transport her drugs, the woman uses two trucks. One truck, the escort or outrider, does not carry any drugs and travels a few kilometres ahead of the second truck carrying the actual consignment. If it encounters a police or army check post, it alerts the second truck, which then waits for its go-ahead. The woman claims her cartel has contacts with personnel manning most check posts and all it takes is a bribe of Rs 50,000 per run to get them to allow the second truck to pass.
Interestingly, the entire cartel is never involved in any particular drug run. “If we are a group of seven, only six of us will go on the run,” she says. “It is a safety mechanism so that even if all six of us are caught, the seventh can bail us out.”
While heroin and opium are either hidden in difficult-to-notice spaces within the vehicle or beneath other goods, the way marijuana is transported is classic Al Capone. Wooden planks are nailed together and then hollowed out. The cavity is filled with the consignment, and then nailed shut with another plank, making these blocks look like stacked planks of wood. “The only way to spot the consignment is by the smell or by emptying the entire truck,” says an intelligence officer posted in Dimapur, Nagaland.
Once the drugs reach Dimapur, they are sold to the next rung of drug runners, who send consignments across the county. “I know an old lady who sends the drugs to Delhi. She operates with the help of a group of students who carry the drugs to Delhi by train and then sell it,” says the drug runner.
But, where do these drugs come from? All four hill districts — Ukhrul, Senapati, Tamenglong and Chandel — grow and supply marijuana, opium and heroin. Whole villages depend on the successful running of the trade to eke out their living.
“We subsist on the foodgrain and vegetables we grow in our fields and have no other source of income,” says the headman of a small village near Maram in Senapati district. “The government’s initiatives to commercialise farming are yet to take off. We have to feed and educate our children. Everyone knows it’s wrong, but what option do we have? This is the easiest way for us to make ends meet.”
When we asked if they were scared of what we would write about, a villager quipped: “We have nothing to be afraid of. Everyone knows what is going on, and they are all making money from it.”
Marijuana and opium cultivation in these parts seems to be almost a “village industry”, but no one remembers how exactly this illegal cultivation started about 30-40 years ago.
AT THE time of our visit, the opium crop had just been planted so details of the produce were not available. However, marijuana cultivation was underway. “While a small village of about five houses annually produces around four tonnes of marijuana, a big village produces around 15-20 tonnes a year,” says a villager.
High-quality marijuana costs Rs 250 per kg at source, but by the time it reaches neighbouring Nagaland, the price goes up to Rs 1,000 per kg (a profit of Rs 750 per kg), and in Delhi, it costs Rs 100 for 20 gm or Rs 5,000 per kg. The middleman makes the bulk of the profit. The crop is harvested and dried every December, and the middlemen arrive by end-January or early February to take the marijuana out.
The drug runners of the four hill districts make handsome profit from all this. Though the exact size of the business is not known, even if just 30 percent of the nearly 1,300 villages in these districts grow an average of eight tonnes of marijuana a year, it means a total output of 3,120 tonnes. At a roughly estimated profit margin of Rs 750 per kg, this works out to a total annual profit of Rs 234 crore from marijuana alone.
The system is complex and involves everyone. “From the police to the politicians, the army, the BSF, the excise and customs officers, and the underground,” says a pastor on the condition of anonymity, “everyone is involved in Manipur’s drug trade.” A trade that is illegal, but no one seems to mind.