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Cross-Border Drug Smuggling And Deaths From Overdose In Punjab Spill Over To Himachal

Initially, drug smuggling remained confined to land but the use of aerial mode — drones and unmanned flying machines --- has emerged as a significant threat to the law enforcement agencies in Punjab

World Drug Day
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Whether it's land, water, or air; no stone is left unturned when it comes to availing each of these means as a mode of cross-border drug smuggling along the Punjab borders, posing a serious challenge to India’s security forces, particularly BSF. The 2016 Bollywood movie 'Udta Punjab' brings to reality how the state continues to remain a notorious hotspot of illicit narcotics trade, drug abuse and drug overdose deaths.

Initially, drug smuggling remained confined to land but the use of aerial mode — drones and unmanned flying machines --- has emerged as a significant threat for the law enforcement agencies. As the smuggling continues to grow, each year, the drug smugglers have also resorted to rivers, using them as a transport medium during recent monsoon floods, to send heavy assignments to India.

During a high-level meeting, Punjab CM Bhagwant Mann admitted, “The smugglers continue to adopt new modus operands like drones and also the river course (mainly the basin) in drug smuggling. It is a matter of concern in Punjab." Mann was urged for a compulsory registration of drones to curb drug and weapon smuggling from Pakistan.

Drug trafficking is particularly common in Malwa, Majha, and Doaba regions. This has caused a widespread impact on the local population, especially the youth who not only are addicts but also have turned to peddling for easy money, and fund their own drug doses.

On August 21, 2023, the BSF, in collaboration with Punjab Police, apprehended two Pakistani nationals and confiscated 29 kg of heroin in the Ferozepur sector. Between June 1 and August 1, the police and the BSF seized a total of 160 kg of heroin from the border areas in Ferozepur and Fazilka.

The Punjab Police has already introduced a drone emergency response system to track and prevent drug smuggling via drones. Yet, the drug smugglers continue to adopt new methods, admit senior officials of the Anti-Drug Task Force, adding that the seizures done by the BSF and Punjab police are just the tip of the iceberg as compared to the volume of drugs coming to Punjab, where there is demand and supply issue.

According to the Anti-Drug Task Force, more than 74 kg of heroin dropped through drones was intercepted between January 1, and September 1, 2023. The number of cases registered under the NDPS is 7,794 during the same period leading to arrests of 10,628 persons. The seizures included 866 kg of heroin, 50 kg of charas, and 981 kg of ganja. The total drug money involved is Rs 5.40 cr.

Kuldeep Singh, Special Director General of Police (DGP)-cum-chief of the State Anti-Narcotics Task Force, says, “We are in a constant war against drug mafia, the traffickers, and small peddlers. The police are working on a multi-pronged action to prevent smuggling, mainly coming through Pakistan borders, and cut down the supply chain."

During the Punjab floods, the smugglers tried to take advantage of river routes besides drones and land routes.

The police, he says, have also made efforts to work on the demand side and took help from other agencies like the health department, de-addiction and rehabilitation of addicts. The families are also motivated to try alternate means if any member is addicted.

There have been alarm bells ringing about the drug problem in Punjab for quite some time. Several, NGOs, social activists, and research scholars have recorded very high drug abuse among the youths and also adults.

Last month, a 70-year-old farmer of Bhaloor village in Moga lost his third son to drugs. There have been instances of married youths or those having minor children, dying of drug overdose leaving behind windows with no means to earn as they had sold out almost everything tractor, bike, jewellery, and land to drugs, called "chitta"-- a refined form of heroin.

Till August 31, there have been 38 drug overdose deaths registered at police stations. More than double this number is unreported as families decline to inform the police because of the social stigma attached to it.

“Drug overdose deaths in the border belt of the Majha region are rapidly rising. The reasons include easy availability of spurious heroin and ‘chitta’—both in the solid form and injectable,” says a local journalist based at Amritsar.

Kartar Singh Dillion, a farmer at Taran admits that drugs are openly sold in the villages and towns. “Peddlers sell adulterated heroin to make a fast buck. It has nearly 50 deaths in six years, including 20 in the past 10 months. A family has lost all six male members to drugs.”

Another resident says, “It’s easier to procure drugs than buy rice. The situation in all border villages is bad. A generation is lost to drugs."

Punjab governor Banwarilal Purohit, who is in constant rows with Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann, has recently said that drugs are available like groceries in the border villages of Punjab.

To effectively curb the cross-border smuggling of drugs, weapons, fake currency, and drone threats, the  Ministry of Home Affairs widened the operational jurisdiction of BSP from 15 km from the borders to 50 km. The official informs that this has helped the force significantly in dealing with smugglers.

Atul Fulzele, IPS officer and IG of BSF's Punjab Frontier headquartered (Jalandhar), says, “Drug smuggling is a state-sponsored crime involving both Pakistan and Afghanistan. We are fully geared up and have a marvellous record of successful operations against smugglers. It's true drones are a new threat yet we are capable of dealing it.”

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The BSF has shot down 35 drones and seized 185 kg of heroin,14 weapons, and a lot of ammunition.

The biggest seizure was on August 5 when four Indian smugglers were arrested with approximately 77.800 kg of heroin, three pistols, 115 live Radar Detection sets, and six magazines. This intelligence-based joint operation with the police of Ferozepur. 

The smugglers also used the Sutlej River to deliver the consignment from Pakistan.   

The drug problem in Punjab has its spill-over in Himachal Pradesh. A persistent outreach campaign of the police has started encouraging the public to nab drug peddlers and also provide vital information to the police.

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In one case at Mandi, the father of a drug addict himself handed over his son to the police for sending him to a rehabilitation centre.

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