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, ‚ÄúMarijuana, as far as the eyes can see.‚ÄĚ
We had driven five hours from Maram, a quaint town in Manipur‚Äôs 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.
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‚Äôs 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‚Äôs second largest opium and heroin producing region has played havoc with the small hill state.
For instance, though Manipur‚Äôs 2.7 million people comprise only 0.8 percent of India‚Äôs population, the state accounts for 8 percent of the country‚Äôs 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.
‚ÄúWe are scheduled to transport 5 kg of heroin to Nagaland for one of the underground insurgent groups,‚ÄĚ she says. ‚ÄúWe 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.
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. ‚ÄúI have not worked with anyone from the army so far,‚ÄĚ she says. ‚ÄúBut 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.‚ÄĚ
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.