Dr. G Shreekumar Menon
On March 05th 2021, Indian Coast Guard ships and aircraft intercepted a Sri Lankan vessel Akarsha Duwa with six crew off Minicoy Island. Upon questioning, the crew confessed to carrying 200 kg high grade Heroin and 60 kg of Hashish, which was jettisoned in the sea on sighting the Coast Guard ships.
On March 18th 2021, the Coast Guard, had intercepted three vessels on suspicion, and after rummaging, recovered drugs and guns from one of the vessels. The value of the drugs has been estimated at Rs.3000 crores. Five AK 47 rifles with 1000 live rounds were also seized. The 19 crew members were detained for further interrogation.
The vessel which was seized on the 05th of March had left Sri Lanka from Chilaw, 80 kms away from Colombo and the other three seized on the 15th of March had left from Tangalle, about 195 km south of Colombo.
In November 2020, Coast Guard had intercepted Sri Lankan boat Shenaya Duwa, and recovered narcotic drugs and guns worth about Rs.1000/ crores, near Tuticorin from a Sri Lankan boat. 99 packets of Heroin, 20 boxes of synthetic drugs, a Thuraya set and five 9mm pistols were recovered.
The strategic location of Lakshadweep islands cannot be lost sight off. Lakshadweep is an archipelago in the Arabian sea, 200 to 440 km off the southwestern Malabar coast of India. It is a Union Territory (without legislature) of India. The Lakshadweep consists of 36 islands. But currently there are 35 islands, as one island is submerged in water due to sea erosion. The islands form the smallest union territory of India and their total surface area is only 32 km.
Strategically these islands are of immense importance to India. The spread of these islands has bestowed upon India 20,000 sq. km. of territorial waters and approximately 400,000 sq. km. of Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). But what should be rattling the Indian Defence Ministry is the recent Chinese ingress into Sri Lanka. China has acquired a controlling stake in the Hambantota Port Project, and the Colombo Port City special economic zone (SEZ). The threatening, new Chinese presence is barely 290 km from the southernmost tip of the Indian peninsula – Kanya Kumari, and we hear the news of this massive drugs and guns trafficking into Lakshadweep.
Looking back into History, will we see a re-enactment, very soon, of the Chinese naval foray into Calicut, that took place in 1406 CE? History books are silent about the fearful seven-footer Mongol Muslim Zheng He, who landed in Calicut with his formidable flotilla. He reportedly commanded a fleet of 317 ships, and about 28,000 men. He oversaw seven voyages to Calicut between 1406 CE to 1433 CE. Apparently, he died at Calicut in 1433 CE and was presumably buried at sea by his staff. The Chinese conducted much of the trade with the Arabs using Calicut port as their base. The Chinese take pride in their History, except for the period of the Opium Wars, when the combined British-Indian forces devastated them using the might of the Opium poppy plant. There are many shrines dedicated to Admiral Zheng He, in China, who towards the end of his life leaned more towards Buddhism. The constantly expanding Chinese footprint in Sri Lanka and Maldives, is deeply inspired by History. President Xi Jinping harbours grandiose ambitions of extending the Chinese territory far and wide, unopposed by any nation. He is planning a big offensive naval arc, extending from Bay of Bengal-Indian ocean-Arabian sea. India has a lot of homework to do. But, what needs immediate attention is to trace the drug-recipient groups operating in Lakshadweep.
The value of the drugs seized just during the period November 2020 to March 31st 2021 is a whopping Rs. 5000 crores! Compare this figure with the annual Budget allocation for 2021-22 for Lakshadweep which is Rs.1349.71 crores. Almost three times the annual budget is the value of drug trafficking for a period of just 5 months. Within a limited surface area of around 32 km, the drug trafficking turnover is around Rs. 5000 crores. Add to this the value and quantum of fire arms seized; everything adds up to an astronomical figure. With this kind of hush-hush money being generated, Hawala and money laundering should also be happening on a large scale. The hitherto cocooned archipelago is suddenly in the spotlight, as its dark underbelly is exposed. No wonder that an orchestrated campaign has been quickly set in motion to ‘save Lakshadweep’. Twitter has also chipped in with ‘Let India Breathe’ campaign, critical about the development plans for the island. There is no problem if Maldives, Seychelles, Bali islands are developed to attract tourists, but Lakshadweep embarking on tourist development activities is to be vehemently opposed. Mercifully, speculation is also rife in some sections of the media that this instantly organized campaign is a red herring – meant to deflect attention from the sheer magnitude of the drugs and guns seizure.
In order to have a comprehensive understanding of the peculiar dynamics of the drugs & guns clandestine trafficking happening in Lakshadweep, it is necessary to open independent offices of Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB), Central Bureau of Narcotics (CBN), Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI), and Enforcement Directorate (ED), there. There is a clear geographical shift in the drug trafficking route into India. Sri Lankan boats ferrying drugs and guns into remote Lakshadweep is going to be a great challenge for enforcement agencies to unravel. The greater challenge is to trace how these drugs and guns wended their way into the Indian mainland, and the Organized Crime Groups (OCGs) that received this bounty, and how the Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs) participated. Also, more important, how was the enormous sums of money that has been generated, has been integrated into the financial system? To unravel this transnational crime, identify, disrupt, and dismantle the drug traffickers, arms traffickers and money launderers, India will have to employ an intelligence -driven, multi-agency approach. This excellent detection and interdiction by the Coast Guard, has the potential to become one of the largest maritime drug investigations ever in India.
The idyllic landscape of Lakshadweep is hiding dark secrets and dangerous conspiracies. Something shady is happening on the sunny beaches of Lakshadweep.
Dr. G Shreekumar Menon, IRS, (Rtd) PhD (Narcotics) is Former Director General, National Academy of Customs Indirect Taxes and Narcotics, & Multi-Disciplinary School of Economic Intelligence India, Fellow, James Martin Center For Non Proliferation Studies, USA. Fellow, Centre for International Trade & Security, University of Georgia, USA, Public Administration, Maxwell School of Public Administration, Syracuse University, U.S.A., AOTS Scholar, Japan.