Why don’t you switch off the floodlights late in the night; at least we can sleep properly,” suggested an officer of Pakistan Rangers to a Border Security Force commandant in a recent flag meeting, citing the calmness on the Punjab border. The meeting, held at Rajatal border outpost in Amritsar, was for the release of two Indian farmers who had unwittingly crossed the border.
The BSF commandant, however, rejected the idea outright; and there was a reason for it. “Pakistan Rangers have been hand-in-glove with drug smugglers of their side,” he said. “It is evident from their attitude and the way they guard their border. The suggestion was a ruse.”
A cursory glance at the border gives a clear idea about what he meant. The pillar (No 11/110) in the Amritsar sector demarcating the border is about 100 metres beyond the barbed wire fence on the Indian side. On the other hand, the Pakistan territory is almost indistinguishable. Many Indian villages are beyond the fence, where there are several border outposts with floodlights. The fence was erected in the late 1980s for curbing infiltration during the height of Sikh militancy. Of late, the 550km border has become so porous that it is the favourite route of drug pedlars and smugglers.
According to a study by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Afghanistan accounted for 85 per cent of the total production of 7,554 tonnes of opiate drugs in 2014. A source in the counter-intelligence wing of the Punjab Police said the raw material for manufacturing drugs came from Afghanistan. It is processed and packaged in Pakistan. It travels through illegal routes under nicknames such as horse, smack and junk.
As per a rough estimate, only about 5 per cent of the finished product is routed through the Indian territory. Still it is worth several thousand crores, as the price of the product increases manifold once it is on the Indian side. “One kilo of heroin is priced at Rs5 lakh in Pakistan. The moment it enters the Indian territory the price jumps to Rs1 crore,” said a police officer. If the consignment reaches Delhi or Mumbai, the price goes up to 05 crore.
“The incentive is so high that even ordinary people from both sides [of the border] get involved and become couriers for the big drug pedlars,” said M.F. Farooqui, deputy inspector-general, BSF. Farmers, who daily go beyond the barbed fence to work their fields, are often a target of the smugglers. “We did a lot of work and research on pedlars’ tricks to push the banned product into our territory,” said Farooqui. “We found out that the handlers provided special footwear, spades or wooden logs to farmers to carry home. Small amounts of heroin were stashed under the upper layer of leather of the footwear. Similarly, they stuffed the hollow log and the butt of the spade with heroin, which Indian handlers collected from the farmers against the payment of a promised amount.”
A system is in place to monitor the movement of farmers outside the fence. “We started checking tractors and other farm equipment, and frisking individuals,” said Farooqui. “We have deputed women armed personnel on border posts for frisking women.”
Other methods the smugglers use are digging holes across the border or using catapults to throw drug packets into the Indian territory. Thick elephant grass on the border makes it easy for them. A close survey along the fence revealed holes with 10-centimetre diameter pipes. On the Pakistani side, the pipes are about four feet above the ground. When they enter the Indian side, they are about two feet under the ground, and ditches are made to keep the exits open.
“We have noticed them,” said Farooqui. “We have identified such structures and plugged them by cutting the route of the pipe inside our territory. We have put red flags on such sites so that our border patrol party can spot them. We have even identified certain locations from where the handlers use swings to propel their consignment into Indian territory, and our jawans keep a close watch on them.”
In 2013, the BSF seized 47kg heroin from carriers. The catch was 187kg in 2014. “This year, so far we have seized about 83kg,” said Farooqui. In the past three years, the BSF gunned down 18 operators around the fence. The latest such incident was on June 18, when two smugglers were shot on the border. “Though no drug was found on them, they had weapons and a stash of fake currency,” said a BSF commandant.
Farooqui attributed the decrease in the trans-border movement of drugs to the greater cooperation of local people. “Earlier, the local inhabitants had a feeling that the BSF was not cooperating with them. They were of the view that they were the victims. I established direct contact with villagers and listened to their grievances and sorted them out,” he said. A platform was created for the villagers to interact with BSF personnel at all levels. And the farmers seem happy. “They even save us from Pakistan Rangers and smugglers,” said Balkar Singh, the sarpanch of the border village of Rajatal.
The BSF has initiated a pre-recruitment training programme for the youth of border villages. “Currently, some 200 young men and women are undergoing pre-recruitment training at our various posts. We make them reach the level of recruitment both physically and mentally. We provide books and other study material to prepare for written test, besides the physical training,” said Farooqui.
For the big sharks in the drug trade, India is just a route to send their consignments to the big markets in the Far East, Europe and the US. In this process, however, the cities and towns of Punjab are exposed to narcotics. According to the Narcotics Control Bureau, the drug menace in Punjab is the highest in India. “Of 30,000 cases of drug peddling registered in the country in 2013, 15,000 were from Punjab,” said Kaustubh Sharma, zonal director (Chandigarh) of the NCB. “The consumption of opium is the highest in the state.”
There have been allegations that the BSF had failed to curb the movement of drugs across the border. Even the Punjab government recently accused the force of inefficiency. The BSF, however, said it was impossible to make the border impenetrable. “We cannot deploy a human chain on the border. We need some technological intervention to keep track of the human movements along the border,” said a senior officer posted in the Ferozepur sector.
Clearly, only a part of the drug consignments from Pakistan crosses the border through the fence. Said the officer, “Trucks, buses and trains are also coming to India from Pakistan on which the BSF has no control.”
Interview/ D.K. Pathak/ director-general, BSF
Drugs could be coming through trade route
BSF Director-General D.K. Pathak never shies away from challenges. The 1979 batch Assam cadre IPS officer has a no-nonsense approach to the drug trafficking across the border in Punjab. Excerpts from an interview:
There is an impression that a lack of coordination is there among the Central agencies involved in protecting the border and curbing smuggling and trafficking.
Contrary to the general impression, there is an absolute co-ordination among the Central agencies dealing with issues on the border and I do not find any lack of coordination among BSF, customs, Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, state police and Narcotics Control Bureau. The BSF is the lead agency in the border areas to coordinate with all other agencies in Punjab. Periodic meetings do take place, where all the agencies come together and share information with each other and coordinated actions are taken as the law permits us to do.
The quantum of contraband is so huge that it appears that it is not possible to bring such consignments through non-trade routes. The integrated check post at Atari seems to be one of the major transit points.
At the ICP, Atari, our role is limited to providing security cover to other Central agencies like customs, DRI and NCB. In case they feel any difficulty, they contact us and we provide them the solutions in terms of information and physical checking, apart from general security cover. However, I cannot say for sure how much narcotic stuff is brought through the road and rail route, but it is for sure that it provides scope to smugglers to use the two routes. Possibly, drugs could be coming to India through normal trade route, but I am not the right person to speak on this issue.
Last year we seized about 400kg of heroin, highest so far in many years. We don’t know the total quantity actually coming through fenced border. But we can say the quantity is not substantial. Persons involved in smuggling of drugs into India would like to transport bigger consignments. For us 21kg was single largest haul last year.
There is a lack of technological assistance, like Geographical Information System, that ensures tight vigil on the border. Many of your own officers at the border said that it was humanly not possible to make things foolproof against illegal activities.
We are using the latest technologies. There is no lack of surveillance equipment provided to our forces on the border. Certainly such measures require constant improvement, which we are doing on a periodic basis. However, I would not like to go into the details of what we are doing for security reasons. Technology is being used to monitor any kind of movements, including smuggling and other illegal activities.
It is true that we have not been provided with the entire planned fund. But modernisation does not involve only technology. I cannot reveal the details of our efforts in upgrading the system. Things are being put in place. However, I would not say that our border is 100 per cent secured, as there has always been a battle of wits between security forces and criminals.
The barbed fences on the border are in bad shape.
Punjab was the first state to have barbed border fence, which was built in the mid-1980s. Yes, they are old. But the process of replacement and repair is going on and this is a continuous process. Therefore, it cannot be said when it began and when it will end. As per the requirement, projects are taken up all along 550km of border in Punjab.
There are reports that BSF personnel have been conniving with the handlers of drug consignments. How big is the problem?
Occasionally, we do come across such cases. We come down heavily on such elements in the force. Recently we caught two personnel in Fazilka sector in Punjab. We could keep a close watch on our force because of coordination among the Central agencies and also because of our own internal vigilance. There are black sheep in the organisation. The punishment for them is outright dismissal from service. We do not tolerate any kind of misadventure from our personnel.
Is there a rotation policy in the BSF?
All our postings have been categorised in three segments—very hard, hard and normal. In the first two categories nobody is posted at one place for more than two years and in the normal posting the maximum tenure at one place is three years. There is no exception to this in normal condition, but in extraordinary situations, we need to make exceptions. But in our force, actually it is the battalions that are moved from one place to other; so there cannot be a case of individuality. However, there are a few, who are exempted from this policy, but for very specific purposes. For intelligence and training personnel the rule is different, as they are placed for not less than five years in a particular place.
There are very few women in the force.
There is no dearth of lady personnel in the force. We are constantly recruiting them and are a real force to reckon with on the borders.
Land of addicts
Doctor, please save me. I love my children,” Gurdeep Singh, 40, could not hold back his tears while pleading to Dr P.D. Garg, head of Guru Nanak De-addiction Centre at Government Medical College, Amritsar. A drug addict for the past 10 years, Gurdeep suffers from frequent epileptic attacks. He had gone to many other de-addictions centres in the city before going to Garg. “Since he is showing great willingness, hopefully in three months I will get him back to normal,” said Garg.
Though no survey has been conducted by the authorities to ascertain the magnitude of the drug menace in Punjab, medical practitioners and social workers say about 70 per cent of the youth in the state are addicts. “I attend to 20-25 new drug addict patients every day. Only a few from the upper strata of society come to me, and the rest go to the smaller private centres,” said Garg. He attributes the current situation to the state's affluence and easy availability of banned substances.
Private de-addiction centres have been mushrooming in the cities of Amritsar, Jalandhar, Ludhiana, Ferozepur and Gurdaspur, as government hospitals have limited facilities. Currently, just about 1,500 beds are there in government hospitals to treat addicts. Many of these private centres do not have the licence or the staff qualified to treat addiction. “No attempt has been made by the state government to address the issue. So we see an unbridled growth of fake de-addiction centres,” said a professor at the Swami Vivekanand Drug Addiction and Treatment Centre, Amritsar.
Garg, who has been asked by the district administration to inspect private de-addiction centres several times, does not approve of their methods. “Most of these centres have musclemen to control the patients,” he said. “They beat the addicts. In some cases, even drugs are provided to control agitated patients. The process is so shady and shabby that patients develop suicide tendency.”