Drugs seldom fail to hog the limelight in India. Last year, the entire nation was obsessed with actor Rhea Chakraborty until the Bombay High Court granted her bail and virtually demolished the case under the NDPS (Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances) Act against her. This year, it is the drug haul from the Mundra port and the arrest of actor Shah Rukh Khan’s son, Aryan Khan, in a drugs case.
Unfortunately, the real drug scene in India gets hardly a ripple by such high-profile, much-debated-on-prime-time cases. According to the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, 2.1% of the population of India uses opioids, against the world average of 0.7%. Elsewhere in the world, cocaine and its derivatives are more popular than in India. This makes for 2.94 crore opioid users. While some of them could be consumers of opium in its traditional form, that still leaves a very large number of heroin addicts in India.
Over 21,000 kg of heroin is consumed every year, and seizures comprise less than 10% of it.
The Total Consumption in India
Such a huge number of consumers or addicts notwithstanding, we do not seem to appreciate that the seizure of heroin by enforcement agencies in India does not reflect even the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Leaving aside the ‘unusual’ seizure of 2,988.21 kg of heroin at the Mundra Port a few days back, the figures for annual seizures of heroin for 2019 and 2018 are 2,448 and 1,258 kg, respectively. That gives an average of 1,853 kg of seizure per year. Officially, there is no information available as to what percentage of total heroin consumption in India this could be.
However, we can get a fairly accurate idea about the ballpark figure for heroin consumption in India by a reverse calculation. According to the research of TV Perneger of the Geneva University, the amount of heroin used intravenously by an average addict was 466 mg per day. This, however, refers to pure heroin. The heroin generally available in the black market is heavily adulterated. Danish researchers Andreasen et al have shown that typically, the heroin available in the black market could be of just about 23% purity, though it varies widely across the world. This means that to get one’s daily dose, the addict will have to use a larger amount of commercially available heroin. A little calculation shows that this would require about 21,741.3 kg of heroin to float in the Indian drugs black market to meet the needs of the addicts.
'Small' and 'Commercial' Quantities
We can understand this in another way too. Those who sent nearly 3,000 kg of heroin hidden in two shipping containers would not be such fools as to risk all their earnings on just one shipment. Obviously, it means that they must be sending many more shipments to other ports or through other devious routes and mechanisms, about which we have no idea.
This means that against an annual market availability of over 21,000 kg of heroin, the enforcement agencies seize only about 8.52% of that. That is, the anti-narcotics drive of the government has remained largely unsuccessful. In my personal opinion, this is mainly attributable to corruption within the ranks of enforcement agencies, particularly the police, though no proof can be adduced.
The draconian NDPS Act has failed to impact the drugs trade and consumption. And, this is in spite of the fact that our NDPS Act is one of the harshest in the world. The Act has stringent provisions for manufacturing, sale, purchase, possession, consumption, abuse and trafficking of drugs. Under Section 27, even consumption of drugs is punishable with one year in jail and ₹20,000 fine.
For possession of drugs, the punishment depends on the quantity of drugs seized. Small and Commercial quantities for each drug have been notified.
For example, for heroin, ‘small’ quantity is just 5 grams, whereas ‘commercial’ quantity is 250 grams. For MDMA, the small quantity is 0.5 grams and commercial quantity is 10 grams. For cocaine, the small quantity is 2 grams and commercial quantity is 100 grams.
Under Section 31(A) of the Act, the maximum punishment is the death penalty. The Act takes a serious view of repeat offenders, prescribing one-and-a-half times enhanced punishments.
Bail can be granted in cases where someone has only consumed banned drugs or narcotics but has not been found to be involved in trading. The restrictions imposed on the grant of bail under the NDPS Act otherwise amount to virtual denial and ensure years of incarceration. According to Section 37(1), an accused person is not to be released on bail unless the court has reasonable grounds to believe that the accused is not guilty and is not likely to commit an offence while on bail.
The Act empowers courts to grant immunity to an addict if they are found involved in a case dealing with trace amounts of the drug. This can be done on the condition that the accused agrees to take medical treatment for de-addiction as mandated under Section 64A. However, in practice, the benefit of this provision is seen to be obtained only by those rich accused who are able to engage top-notch lawyers.
Keeping Up Appearances
Given the fact that we registered about 72,000 cases under the NDPS Act last year, it is evident that the Act and its harsh punishments are not deterrent enough insofar as the menace is concerned.
It is widely alleged that just to keep the numbers rolling for the benefit of channels keen on sensationalism, most of the cases are ‘manufactured’ by ‘planting’ a quantity of a drug on a person, which is just a little above the definition of a ‘small quantity’ for that drug. This makes the NDPS Act a very potent tool of harassment. It is alleged that agencies generally keep a stock of drugs saved from previous seizures with them and plant them on the accused.
The Bombay High Court’s bail order in the case of Rhea Chakraborty, against whom very tall claims were made by the agencies, is particularly illuminating in this regard:
“…It is necessary for the investigating agency to show that her activities or contravention involved a commercial quantity of a narcotic drug or psychotropic substance. The investigation did not reveal any recovery either from the applicant or from the house of Sushant Singh Rajput. It is their own case that the drugs were already consumed and hence there was no recovery. In that case, there is nothing at this stage to show that the applicant had committed any offence involving commercial quantity of contraband. The material, at the highest, shows that she has committed an offence involving contraband, but, the crucial element of incurring rigours of Section 37 in respect of commercial quantity is missing. Therefore, I am satisfied that there are reasonable grounds for believing that the applicant is not guilty of any offence punishable under Sections 19, 24 or 27A or any other offence involving commercial quantity. There are no other criminal antecedents against her. She is not part of the chain of drug dealers. She has not forwarded the drugs allegedly procured by her to somebody else to earn monetary or other benefits.”
A Case of Misplaced Priorities
In effect, it means that the anti-narcotics drive in India is largely a hoax. It serves only headline-grabbing purposes and catering to the perverse curiosity of the people about the lifestyle of celebrities. It does little to ruffle the deep waters of the nationwide drug trade and consumption.
As a nation, we do not seem to understand that harsh laws do not solve any problem involving a social angle. In fact, it is proof of the collective intellectual bankruptcy of the system, which thinks that every problem could be solved through the enforcement or punishment route.
The problem would not be addressed by posters and slogans; a massive social awareness campaign involving families of addicts is required.
(Dr. N.C. Asthana, a retired IPS officer, has been DGP Kerala. Amongst his 49 books, he is also the author of ‘State Persecution of Minorities and Underprivileged in India’ and ‘Why Rapes: India’s New Epidemic’. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)