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GUWAHATI, India - A northeastern Indian state that has for years been a big transit point for illicit drugs originating in neighbouring Myanmar has launched a massive crackdown on the trade, seizing record amounts and arresting nearly 2,000 people since May.
Assam, four of whose neighbouring states have open and rugged borders with Myanmar, connects the northeast to the rest of India. It has received praise for the drug clampdown from ruling and opposition politicians but been criticised for alleged human rights abuses, including the shooting of suspected traffickers.
Assam's ties with one of the states, Mizoram, has frayed too after Assam linked the drugs fight to a recent territorial clash https://www.reuters.com/world/india/six-police-one-civilian-killed-clashes-between-two-indian-states-2021-07-26 between the two states in which police forces fired at each other.
Police say Assam, the most populous northeastern state, is where traffickers gather or store drugs such as heroin and methamphetamine. They estimate about a fifth is sold locally and the rest in India's richer towns and cities.
Myanmar is one of Asia's main sources of illegal production of methamphetamine, or "crazy drug" yaba, as well as heroin, according to the International Narcotics Control Board https://www.incb.org/documents/Publications/AnnualReports/AR2020/Annual_Report/E_INCB_2020_1_eng.pdf and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
"I hope I'm wrong, but the drug trafficking situation in Northeast India looks somewhat like it did in Bangladesh a few years ago before methamphetamine really took off," said Jeremy Douglas, UNODC's regional representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
"We've seen a pattern of small intermittent seizures of yaba becoming slightly larger and more frequent, and scattered reports of local use - very similar."
Bangladesh, which reported the world's largest seizures https://www.unodc.org/res/wdr2021/field/WDR21_Booklet_2.pdf of prescription opioids in 2019, has become South Asia's biggest destination for yaba, with a market estimated at more than $3 billion. Police there have killed hundreds of suspected drug dealers since 2018 https://www.reuters.com/article/us-bangladesh-drugs-killings-idUSKBN1KX0V4.
In a sign of how India's trade has flourished, last week the junior home minister presented to parliament data on drugs and arms smugglers http://22.214.171.124/loksabhaquestions/annex/176/AU2506.pdf that showed many more arrests happened on its border with Myanmar than other neighbours such as Pakistan and Bangladesh between 2018 and 2020.
Assam this year has already made more drug seizures and related arrests than it did in any previous full year.
Much of the action has happened since an ambitious party colleague of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Himanta Biswa Sarma, became chief minister of Assam in May and said he had given police a free hand to act on drugs, including to shoot suspects when needed.