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Malda: India’s Afghanistan

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Opium smuggling from this district of West Bengal to the western state has increased five-fold over the last five years. Guns and counterfeit money are add-ons of this menace
By Avanindra Mishra in Jaipur


What is common between dry, dusty Rajasthan and Malda in West Bengal? Opium. The opium mafia in Malda has joined hands with local smugglers in Rajasthan and left a trail which has got the police worried.

In 2016 alone, the opium haul has been more than the total recovered over past five years, and most of the confiscated stuff has been traced to Malda. This district adjoining Bangladesh is traditionally known for its mangoes, silk and jute. The rise of illicit opium farming over the past few years has earned Malda the tag of India’s Afghanistan. Its geographic location, with the international border of Bangladesh on the east and Santhal Parganas in Jharkhand and Purnea in Bihar to the west, makes Malda a preferred location for smuggling. Opium production is almost a cottage industry here with smugglers establishing facilities for production of high-potency byproducts like heroin. They have become so powerful that they even challenge the authority of the state government. The communal violence in Kaliachak is suspected to have been provoked by the opium mafia.

RAJASTHAN A TARGET

 

But why is Rajasthan on the radar of these opium smugglers? The state has a tradition of opium consumption and production and this has generated a huge local demand. Opium has also been traditionally farmed in several districts of Rajasthan. In some districts, it is even served to visitors.

There is also a demand for it in Punjab, where opium abuse has left many young men in dire straits. However, as the government continues to reduce the number of licenses for opium farming, the demand in the illicit market has been on the rise and Malda has filled this gap.

Also, the trade is very lucrative. In Malda, opium milk sells for Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000 a kilo, said an official. “The same thing sells in Rajasthan for around Rs 1.25 lakh a kilo,” he said. Sadly, all this has led to many addicts. It is estimated that there are more than 19,000 opium addicts in Rajasthan who have been recommended to rehabilitation centers.

These smugglers use the railways for their nefarious activities. This year alone, the Government Railway Police (GRP), Ajmer, exposed 28 smuggling attempts, seizing 325 kg of high quality opium. “Incidence of opium smuggling has increased six-fold as compared to last year,” said SP GRP Om Prakash Meghwal. In 2015, only five cases of opium smuggling were registered by the GRP, but this year, already 28 cases have been exposed. “Not only has the number of smuggling attempts increased, but the volumes too.”

POTENT CONSIGNMENT

But it’s not just the GRP that has homed in to the activity of the Malda mafia. Recoveries by the Rajasthan police special operations wing have been alarming too. “The Malda link has been seen in many incidents of smuggling, and it’s not limited to just raw opium. Their attempts to smuggle more potent drugs like morphine and counterfeit currency have also been foiled recently,” revealed Alok Tripathi, ADG, Special Operations Group (SOG). It is believed that guns too are being smuggled.

In a recent interstate collaboration, the Rajasthan SOG trapped smugglers of Malda in Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh. Huge amounts of opium and morphine were confiscated from them and large quantities of fake currency from West Bengal were recovered from Bharatpur district of Rajasthan near the border with Uttar Pradesh.

What has surprised the police is that the smugglers are pushing opium into areas of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh that were traditionally known to produce opium. “The mafia pushing in opium in these areas indicates the extent to which it is being illegally produced in Malda,” said a senior police official.

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POLICE NET

Over the past months, the GRP has arrested opium smugglers from Malda deboarding trains in many stations in Rajasthan. On March 18, Muhommed Sikander Momin of Malda was arrested with six kilogram of opium at Jaipur junction from the Sialdah-Ajmer Express. On March 31, two more residents from Malda, Anoop Sarkar and Jayant Mandal, were arrested from Ajmer with 14 kg of opium from the same train. Huge quantities have also been recovered from several other trains arriving from Bengal.

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As surveillance intensifies on the rail network, the smugglers have been exploring the land route. On April 5, two more residents of Malda, Anulhassan Shaikh and Muhommand Jakurridin, were arrested by Jodhpur police with 22 kg of opium. They came by bus and were arrested before they could make the delivery to local smugglers.

Unwilling to give up on Rajasthan’s opium demand, the smugglers have been exploring new venues. “They have developed connections with local smuggling rings and are employing Rajasthani laborers working in Bengal. These laborers, while returning home, find their offers to smuggle opium lucrative enough,” said a senior police official.

ADG crime PK Singh admitted that the Malda connection was a serious development. “There is a huge domestic demand for opium which has attracted the smugglers. However, we are in discussion with our counterparts in West Bengal and the movement of smugglers is being observed.”

Efforts are on to reduce this smuggling. A recent Rajasthan High Court order prohibited the renewal of licensed poppy husk (Doda Post) outlets. Thus, hundreds of such outlets closed permanently on March 31. But this has also raised questions about the Malda police and administration. Opposition leaders in West Bengal have held the TMC government in the state responsible for sheltering criminals after the communal violence in Kaliachak in Malda earlier this year.

Rajasthan obviously needs to gird up to tackle this menace.

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