Uttar Pradesh’s Barabanki district is where opium from across the country is converted into heroin. That is why it has turned into the fiefdom of India’s most ruthless drug lords, reports Rishi Majumder
AT BARABANKI, a district neighbouring Lucknow, the drug lord of the season is Ajjan. His real name is Mesbah-ur-Rehman. The 35-year-old was arrested last year, and his modus operandi, revealed during interrogation, exposed shocking truths about the unconventional methods used by Barabanki’s heroin traffickers.
“Ajjan was 15 when he began trafficking heroin,” says the Central Bureau of Narcotics (CBN) officer who interrogated him. “He was a third-generation trafficker.” This means Ajjan’s grandfather was a trafficker too. How did he get so big? “By doing retail and wholesale,” says the officer. ‘Retail’ implies supplying smack to addicts in and around Barabanki.
Ajjan took over this market by getting his rivals arrested, or getting them killed. ‘Wholesale’ means selling higher purity heroin in bulk to traffickers who will adulterate it before distributing it. “Ajjan earns Rs. 80,000 every day from his racket. By the time it is mixed and multiplied and sent to the streets, his heroin generates an annual turnover of around Rs. 100 crore.”
Ajjan is only one of Barabanki’s drug lords. Other big players are under the scanner, but have not yet been caught red-handed. They include Ranjit Bahadur Shrivastav (who used to work with gangster Babloo Srivastava, no relation), RK (full name unknown), Absar, Mannan, Jabeer and Malti Verma, who is also the village pradhan of Dariarpur.
And Sangram Singh, the MLA of Nawabganj. Singh, who was earlier a minister in the BJP government, is now part of Mayawati’s Cabinet. He had Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances cases registered against him; they were dropped after he became a minister. Every informer and intelligence official TEHELKA spoke to mentions Singh as one of the main players in Barabanki. Yet no one can touch him.
These drug lords may or may not traffic the heroin that India consumes, but they are responsible for its manufacture. Six years ago, when opium for this heroin was diverted from licit poppy cultivation in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh — called India’s Golden Triangle — Barabanki was at the centre.
Tikra Usma and Tikra Murtaza villages in Barabanki earn Rs. 1,500 crore annually from drug trafficking
Today, when this opium is got from illicit cultivation in nine states — eight of which TEHELKA called India’s Golden Crescent (Hurricane Heroin, 29 January) — Barabanki is again at the centre. “Opium is converted into morphine in these states and sent to Barabanki. Then they convert it to heroin,” explains a Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) official.
All the chemicals needed for this are easily available in the market. All but one: acetic anhydride. A manufacturer of acetic anhydride risks the same sentence a heroin carrier does if he doesn’t account for it with the NCB. So tankers from two of India’s biggest acetic anhydride factories — at Gajraula and Dhampur in UP — regularly report losses in transit, which are accounted for. NCB officials say acetic anhydride in the black market fetches more than hundred times what it does legally.
Heroin made in Barabanki goes to New Delhi and Mumbai. It used to go to Kolkata too, but heroin from Lalgola is taking over there. Barabanki heroin is distributed in towns it transits through and is further routed to other towns.
Ajjan is from Tikra Usma village. Some drug enforcement officers say Tikra Usma and Tikra Murtaza — two of Barabanki’s most notorious drug villages — earn Rs. 1,500 crore annually from trafficking. Others say the whole of Barabanki earns only Rs.50 crore. The truth lies somewhere in between. By the time it hits the streets, the heroin is mixed and magnified to about a hundred times as much, generating thousands of crores for all the players involved.
“What would Ajjan do by earning more?” asks the CBN officer. “Will he be able to spend it in Tikra Usma? Barabanki? Lucknow?” In 1985, two brothers from Tika Usma named Jasim and Hasim went to Lucknow with gunny bags full of cash to buy a helicopter. This brought them under the enforcement agency’s scanner, and a crackdown ensued on Tikra Usma. This has prevented their successors from spending too much. So they don’t overprice the heroin they make and don’t earn too much.
The other suspect drug villages in Barabanki are Tera Kalan, Tikra Murtaza, Bhanau, Baroli Malik, Mariarpur, Safdargunj, Ramnagar, Basa Sharif, Chandoli and Fatehpur. Most of these villages are covered by the Jaidpur, Safdargunj and Koti Police Stations. Drug enforcement officials say these police stations are among the choicest postings in the state. A police officer here, if he is corrupt, can easily make more than Rs. 1 crore in a year.
THERE ARE lookouts employed at every road that leads from the borders of Barabanki district towards the drug villages. The lookouts are mostly teenagers armed with cell phones. As you get close to the villages they follow your car on motorcycles through a relay system.
A narcotics officer recounts his experience at Tikra Usma: “We went to the village in plainclothes, in an ordinary car. We looked around a bit from the village entrance and left. Four days later, we went in for a raid. The sarpanch knew we had been there earlier. He knew what clothes we were wearing. He knew the number on the license plate of our car. He even remembered the exact time we had halted our vehicle for. Predictably, we didn’t find anything during that raid. So much for being undercover.”
At the village square, many of the houses are joined together to make up one tunnel-like structure. Other houses have connecting compounds. This criss-crossing of houses is a maze officials are unable to solve. When NCB officials walk into one house for a raid, the trafficker escapes into the next one, and so on. The compounds are surrounded by high walls that are impossible to look over and difficult to climb.
If drug enforcement officials do climb in or break through the iron gates of the compounds they will enter a courtyard where the women of the household sit. These are Muslim women clad in purdahs. So criminal suits will be slapped on the officials instead of the other way round.
It is in this maze where heroin is made. “Earlier there would be a lot more processing — in the jungles. So the heroin would have more purity,” says an NCB official. “Today, a lot of it is made without even heating it properly (ideally acetic anhydride has to be heated with morphine for two hours). They put the ingredients together in a plastic drum, shut it and let them react.”
“I remember seizures of heroin that had high purity levels from Barabanki in the 1980s,” says former Directorate of Revenue Intelligence official Karan Sharma. Even today the heroin makers of Barabanki have enough expertise to make heroin with a purity of between 30-60 percent.
Finally, most people in Barabanki’s drug villages are related. The residents intermarry because few from other villages are willing marry here. This makes getting informers from within the villages difficult. “But the traffickers have many informers among the police — so they are often tipped off about a raid,” says Om Prakash, former additional director general, NCB.
Another officer adds: “Maybe what’s really needed to catch the traffickers here is a combing operation in the area.”