Chingngaihlian (name changed) was 23 years old when she was diagnosed with HIV in 2016. A year later she lost her youngest child, due to the disease. A resident of Saikul village in the Churachandpur district of Manipur, Chingngaihlian is now a single mother of three after her husband left her for another woman in the same village. “He left me when he got to know that I was having HIV. But he was the one who transmitted the disease,” she said.
Chingngaihlian's husband was an abuser of injectable drugs, like many others in Churachandpur, the district having the highest number of drug abusers in the state. In 2011, a year before marrying Chingngaihlianm he was diagnosed with HIV.
Churachandpur is one of the five districts of Manipur that shares a 398 km border with Myanmar in its Northwestern part. Less than 10 per cent of the Manipur-Myanmar border is fenced and thus serves as the transit route for illegal drugs to Northeast India from Golden Triangle, the tri-junction of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand borders --- a centre of a thriving opium economy and narcotics.
Manipur contributes only 0.24 per cent of the total population of India but has 8 per cent of total HIV cases in the country. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes about 19.8 per cent of the drug users in Manipur are HIV positive, thanks to the transition from inhalants to injectable drug users in the state. While various government initiatives and support groups' efforts have been able to improve the HIV situation, then what it was in the past two decades, the state’s geographical location and socio-political situations are coming in the way of the ‘War on Drugs’- a campaign launched by the BJP-led government in the state in 2018.
Talking to Outlook, Geetchandra Mangang, Secretary General of Coalition Against Drugs & Alcohol (CADA) a civil society organization based in the capital city of Imphal said, “The government is focusing on the supply line of the illegal drugs that are coming from the Golden Triangle. But it has failed to address a ground issue- the production of drugs within Manipur. Manipur is no longer a transit route of illegal drugs, in fact, it is becoming one of the major producers of illegal drugs.”
In numerous instances, illegal drug manufacturing units have been busted in the state indicating a thriving drug cartel. However, major kingpins behind setting up these factories are yet to come to the radar of the administration.
The fact that Manipur is no longer only the transit route for illegal drugs lies in the white scratches of flowers in the hills mainly in the districts of Ukhrul, Senapati, Kangpokpi, Kamjong, Churachandpur, and Tengnoupal. The hill areas, inhabited by Scheduled Tribes are being widely used for poppy cultivation --- the unripe seed pod which is used to produce opium. Poppy derivatives like heroin and brown sugar, and the seizure of other contraband substances grab the front-page news frequently and so are its time-to-time destruction.
According to government statistics, 14,315 acres of illicit poppy, cultivated mostly in the hills were destroyed by security forces during 2017-2021, in the previous term of the BJP government. under the ‘War on Drugs campaign’- a drive against illicit drugs. He has also allocated a team of at least 100 police personnel in each district to uproot and destroy poppy plants.
According to CADA, in the past 20 years, poppy cultivation in the hill areas of Manipur has grown many folds with the patronage of Myanmarese drug lords. Many illegal settlers from Myanmar in the hills of Manipur in the border areas are also taking up poppy cultivation, it stated.
“Every drug haul in the Northeast and most in the rest of India is somehow connected to Manipur which is very unfortunate. Despite a massive campaign since 2018, the result is not very impressive. While drug traffickers are being caught by the security, the investigations have fallen short on the real kingpins, most of whom are based in Myanmar,” said Geetchandra Mangang.
In what can be regarded as the biggest drug haul, Heroin and Methamphetamine worth over Rs 500 crore was seized from a house at Moreh town in Tengnoupal district, a border town between Manipur and Myanmar in December 2021. An alleged drug trafficker of Myanmarese origin was arrested from the spot. According to police, the drugs were smuggled from Myanmar- the world’s second-largest producer of Opium.
While the government has roped in the Narcotics and Affairs of Border (NAB), Anti-Narcotics Department, Manipur Police, Assam Rifles, nonprofits like CADA, and various tribal groups to destroy poppy cultivations, the lack of alternative farming to compete with opium has remained a challenge. A huge market, high returns and the short duration of poppy growing seasons that do not clash with traditional farming have made the cultivation a lucrative business worth risk-taking.
In fact, the forced eradication drives made poppy growers act discreetly with a further stronger networking system among growers, traders and smugglers to keep the business thriving.
On December 15, the Manipur government, first, launched an alternative farming system to replace poppy cultivation in nine hill districts of Manipur- Churachandpur, Pherzawl, Noney, Tamenglong, Senapati, Kangpokpi, Ukhrul, Kamjong, Tengnoupal and Chandel. CM N. Biren Singh distributed seeds of Rabi crops, nursery items, tools and equipment to 17 registered farmers' societies in these hill districts. It would take a couple of years to see if alternative farmings were bringing a change in the drug scenarios of the state.
“The Burmese drug lords are also encouraging tribal farmers to plant poppies. Unless these new plantations are promptly destroyed and gainful agricultural alternatives provided to the farmers, the India-Burma border will soon be dotted with poppy fields feeding the processing plants in western Burma. A rebel-drug lord-officialdom nexus is emerging in India's Northeast in a repeat of the Colombian scenario”, writes Subir Bhaumik, in his book Troubled Periphery- Crisis of India’s Northeast.
The Bharatiya Janata party picked up the Congress’s failure to curb the menace of drugs which derailed the latter from power in 2017 from the state. N. Biren Singh became the face of the campaign against drugs in the run-up to the polls as someone who has been vocal about the problem. However, the allegations of former Manipur police officer Thounaojam Brinda against Manipur CM Biren Singh of shielding an alleged drug lord and BJP member turned the tables.
Brinda was the first lady police officer from the state’s Narcotics and Affairs of Border Bureau to be granted a state gallantry award by the BJP government in 2018, in recognition of her continued effort against the smuggling and sale of drugs. However, she returned the medal in December 2020 after the former chairman of the Chandel autonomous district council Lhukhosei Zou and a BJP member, who she arrested two years back during a raid in June 2018 was acquitted by a local court. The decision of the court has been challenged in the Supreme Court with the intervention of civil society groups like The 3.5 collective and CADA etc.
In another instance, The Manipur Human Rights Commission, in August 2021, suo motu registered a case based on a statement by BJP MLA Lourembam Rameshwor Meetei allegedly blaming Ministers, MLAs and police officers for supporting drug lords.