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After cattle, smuggling of phensedyl and yaba tablets spikes in eastern states

Hindustan Times logo Hindustan Times 12-08-2022 Joydeep Thakur and Utpal Parashar
100 Battalion of Border Security Force (BSF) in a joint operation with Meghalaya police seized 3200 bottles of phensedyl cough syrup in the bordering area of South Garo Hills district of Meghalaya, on July 24 (ANI File) © Provided by Hindustan Times 100 Battalion of Border Security Force (BSF) in a joint operation with Meghalaya police seized 3200 bottles of phensedyl cough syrup in the bordering area of South Garo Hills district of Meghalaya, on July 24 (ANI File)

KOLKATA: Acting on a tip-off on Monday afternoon when the Border Security Force (BSF) personnel went to raid a house at Chapra in West Bengal’s Nadia district near the Indo-Bangladesh border, little did they know what was in store. They just had information about a large quantity of phensedyl, a cough syrup used as a stimulant, being stored in a house.

“When our team went there, they stumbled upon a few thousand bottles of phensedyl stacked in gunny bags and cartons. As the team were about to seize the consignment, they were attacked by at least 15–20 masked men. Most of them were carrying crude firearms. They opened fire to keep the BSF busy, while others in the group managed to flee with most of the bottles. One BSF jawan was injured,” said AK Arya, deputy inspector general of BSF’s South Bengal Frontier.

Out of the 4096.7 km long Indo-Bangla border, West Bengal shares a 2,216 km stretch with Bangladesh. The India-Bangladesh border in West Bengal is the longest and one of the most porous international borders in any state.

Over the past few years while seizures of cattle being smuggled into Bangladesh have dropped from 38,657 in 2018 to around 1611 in 2021, smuggling of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances including phensedyl and yaba tablet has risen alarmingly.

In 2018, BSF seized around 1.39 lakh bottles of phensedyl all along the 900km-long international border in south Bengal. The seizures rose to 2.12 lakh bottles in 2019 and 2.68 lakh bottles in 2020. In 2021, it dropped to 1.63 lakh bottles. This year up to June 31, the seizure has already crossed 1.60 lakh bottles.

Smuggling of yaba tablets, a party drug that originated in Myanmar, has also shot up simultaneously. While around 1,362 tablets were seized in 2018, the amount went up to 53,763 in 2019. It dropped to around 38,527 in 2020 and 14,147 in 2021. This year more than 7,000 tablets have been seized in the first seven months.

“One of the primary reasons behind the alarming rise in smuggling of phensedyl is the decline in cattle smuggling. While on the one hand, the BSF stepped up its vigil, CBI also started its probe into cattle smuggling and the role of some BSF officers came under the scanner. Two BSF officers and a state police inspector have been arrested,” said a former senior BSF officer.

According to Narcotics Control Bureau data, India’s porous borders with Myanmar and Bangladesh in eastern India are the biggest smuggling zones for narcotic drugs. As per the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) data submitted in Parliament on July 7, 2022, around 80,000 bottles of codeine were seized from West Bengal and 1,10,044 bottles from Assam between 2019 and 2021. It was about 25% of the total codeine bottles seized in the country in these three years. Data shows seizures of tablets and cough syrups by security and excise officials have also increased in all eastern Indian states in recent years. Thousands found carrying these drugs have also been nabbed.

On July 24, a team of the Assam Police stopped a private car with a Manipur registration plate at Guwahati and recovered nearly 100,000 yaba tablets valued at about 20 crore on the street. Two Manipur natives, a Manipur Police personnel and an Assam Rifles ‘jawan’ in the vehicle were arrested. A day earlier on July 23, personnel from Border Security Force (BSF) recovered around 3,200 bottles of phensedyl, from a jungle in Jatrakona in the South Garo Hills district of Meghalaya. The value of the seized contraband is around 6 lakh.

Anti-narcotics officers said Assam and other north-eastern states are transit routes for drugs because of the region’s proximity to the Golden Triangle of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. Southeast Asia’s prime opium-producing area and one of the busiest drug supply routes to Europe.

“This has turned states in the northeast as the biggest transit hub of drugs,” an official said. India shares a 1643-km long border with Myanmar.

Phensedyl is legally manufactured in India and the cough syrup, containing codeine, is smuggled into neighbouring Bangladesh where it is used as an alternative to alcohol, which is forbidden to the mainly Muslim population. Bangladeshi Muslims can only legally drink if they have a license backed by a doctor who recommended it for health purposes.

“This makes the smuggling all the more lucrative. The cost of one bottle of phensedyl, which sells for around 150 in India, instantly shoots up to 300 – 500 as soon as it crosses the border. By the time the consignment reaches Dhaka, the cost of one bottle could even go up to 1800 – 2000,” said a senior officer of North 24 Parganas, a border district in Bengal.

According to senior BSF and police officials, the cough syrup is manufactured in Himachal Pradesh’s Solan district from where agents along the Indo-Bangla border in West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura procure them through dealers and distributors based in Varanasi and Lucknow.

“Once the consignments reach the destinations in West Bengal and other north-eastern states, they are stacked in houses in villages close to the border. Local smugglers pick them up from these addresses and smuggle them out of the country. The entire consignment is disposed of within a few hours,” said a senior police officer.

On Monday, the BSF had gone to raid one such house in Nadia district. According to preliminary information received by the agency, there were more than 5,000 bottles kept in cartons and gunny bags.

Local youths, men and women are lured into the smuggling because of the socio-economic conditions. They are the ones who cross the border with the consignments and are called the ‘labour party’. They get around 300 – 500 for each trip.

This isn’t the only way the cough syrup is smuggled. On August 9, BSF found a raft made out of stems of banana tree, well camouflaged with water-hyacinths, floating down the river. When it was searched, BSF found a huge air-tight can tied to it. The can was full of phensedyl bottles.

“Had it flown further downstream, smugglers on the other side of the border would have retrieved it and taken out the bottles,” said a BSF official.

In November 2021, BSF also busted two local units, set up in a village hut, in North 24 Parganas, where spurious phensedyl was being manufactured.

“The raids led to the seizure of a huge cache of items including spurious cough syrups, chemicals, bottle punching machines, printing machines and labels. Two persons were arrested. A preliminary probe revealed that the unit had been functioning for over four months,” said an official of the Narcotics Control Bureau, who was associated with the case.

BSF officials said that efforts are on to bring down the smuggling of phensedyl and they are in regular touch with their counterparts in Bangladesh. The central agency is also working closely with the local police.

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