Demonetisation hits illegal opium trade in India?s own Afghanistan

WION Malda, West Bengal, India Nov 22, 2016, 03.13 PM(IST) Written By: Pooja Mehta

While the Bengal government has banned cultivation of opium poppy, illicit opium trade has become rampant in the district and is partially dependent on the fake currency in circulation. Photograph:( AFP )

India’s own Afghanistan, Malda – a district in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal – known for its illicit opium trade has taken a hit following demonetisation.

Malda is also a hub for illegal arms, cow smuggling and is referred to as India’s fake currency capital.

The National Investigating Agency (NIA) came up with a report last year that 90 per cent of Fake Indian Currency Notes (FICN) pushed into the country from Pakistan are routed through Bangladesh. Since Malda shares a porous border with Bangladesh, carriers from Malda smuggle the FICN into the country and release it into circulation.

“Malda works as a landing point for agents, who circulate fake currency into the country. Malda shares its border with Nepal and Bhutan in the north and Bangladesh in the south. Agents who come from Bangladesh can easily sneak into our country as most of the International Border does not have fencing. Some agents even produce fake documents while entering our country,” said a senior official of NIA.

While the Bengal government has banned cultivation of opium poppy, illicit opium trade has become rampant in the district and is partially dependent on the fake currency in circulation.

Opium is a derivative of the poppy seed pod. Its cultivation takes place across three months – November, December and January – in Malda. Agents from Bangladesh smuggle the poppy seeds and give it to the farmers for sowing it around October. Farmers are increasingly cultivating the poppy seeds for better returns compared to the cultivation of other crops.

“A bigha (0.4005 acres) of cultivable land yields 4 kgs of opium latex. The farmers scrape the latex before the poppy seeds mature and the latex is dried. For one kg of opium latex, a farmer is offered anywhere between Rs 60,000 to Rs 65,000 (USD 877 to USD 950) by the agent. Later, the villagers deliver the consignment from one point to another and receive a handsome amount of money, mostly fake currency notes. A carrier is supposed to cover a distance of 100 metres, which makes it difficult for the security agencies to keep track as the entire village is engaged in it,” said a carrier, adding, “The final carrier hands it over to the agent and he deals with the drug mafias and the agents are paid Rs 1 lakh (USD 1,462) for one kg of opium. The drug mafias later, send the consignment to other districts of Bengal like Birbhum and Murshidabad for processing. The opium latex is further processed into heroine and smuggled across the International Border into Bangladesh,” the official added.

He added, “The money that we received so far also contained fake currency notes, but we did not mind as the fake notes were accepted anywhere in the district. Thousands of fake notes are in circulation in the district and no one denies accepting it, hence we did not mind accepting those notes in the form of payment.”

However, following demonetisation, the farmers are being offered Rs 30,000 (USD 438) for a kg of opium latex since it is now difficult to include fake currency in the payment. “It is one of the most lucrative businesses these days. If we cultivate other crops, it depends on the rainfall that we receive that particular year. But cultivation of poppy is a great deal as it only takes three months to grow. It does not destroy the quality of the soil and keeps it ready for the cultivation of any other crop that we want to besides these three months. But, following the demonetisation, we are being offered only half the amount to what was promised,” said a farmer who refused to be named.

In the last five years, cultivation has increased many folds. While the Kaliachawk-III was known for its poppy cultivation, it has now spread across Kaliachawk-I, II and Chachol-I, II besides blocks like Gajol, Bamongola and Habibpur.

While the local police is taking up modern techniques like use of drone to identify poppy fields and destroy them, farmers grow crops like sugarcane and maize to camouflage on the periphery, making it difficult for identification. Last year, police destroyed several hundreds of acres of poppy fields.

However, officials of the security agency reveal that some local police officials are hand in glove with the drug mafias and are often paid a commission to prevent destruction of their fields.