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Drug supplies haven’t reduced a bit even during the pandemic. According to the Department of Narcotics Control, much more drugs were recovered in 2020 than in 2019. What message does this give?

Drug traffickers consider any disaster to be a honeymoon. Along with Bangladesh’s economic development, greater amounts of drugs have been pouring in from neighbouring India and Myanmar. This could be a propensity to try and get a share of this rising economy. According to the narcotics control department, 53 million (5 crore 30 lakh) yaba tablets were seized in 2018 in the country. In 2019 this went down by 25 million (2.5 crore stood). But it 2020 it rose again to by 6 million. However, though the volume of seized yaba went down in 2019, other drugs entered the market including khat, ice, LSD and magic mushrooms. It also must be remembered that, according to international standards, the volume of seized drugs must be multiplied by 10 to get an idea of actual amount. In other words, the amount of drugs not recovered is 10 times more than the amount of seized drugs.

From May 2018 a special operation against drugs was taken up in the country. In the following two and a half years, 272 persons were killed in so-called gunfights. It is still not clear whether that operation is over or is continuing. How would you, as a researcher, evaluate the success of the operation?

There are both achievements and failures of the hardline operation, that is, gunfights or combing operation, taken up from May 2018 by the law enforcement agencies. Human rights agencies have questioned the government’s policy in this regard. And the anti-drug activities of the government and the administration lost credibility with the unfortunate killing of retired army major Sinha on 31 July last year in a drive headed by the controversial OC Pradeep. The government administration must be reorganised to rein in drug trafficking or else the drug traffickers and the criminal ring will plunge the country into utter darkness.

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The government took up an initiative to get the drug traffickers to surrender. On 16 February 2019, over 100 yaba listed dealers surrendered to the home minister in Teknaf. But the influx of yaba through Teknaf has not abated. Why wasn’t this surrender effective?

Apparently speaking, the move by the government to get these drug dealers to surrender was laudable. But there are no official reports on the post-surrender lifestyles of these drug ring leaders. If a research cell under the department of narcotics control or consultants could be appointed to run a survey on this, then the outcome of the surrender could be determined. The absence of the local powerful politician alleged to be the involved in the drug trafficking, put the entire surrender process into question.

Dhaka Metropolitan Police recently introduced dope tests as a measure against drug addiction. Do you think dope tests should be compulsory in the recruitment for government and private jobs?

This is a timely and praiseworthy initiative to uphold the professional prestige and efficiency of the law enforcement agencies. This can be made compulsory for all members at a field level, in public interest.

It is nothing new that Bangladesh’s drug traffickers have links with international drug trafficking rings. A Bangladeshi woman was even arrested in Sri Lanka’s biggest drug haul in recent times where 304kg of heroin and 5kg of cocaine were recovered.

Geographically speaking, Bangladesh is sandwiched between three of the biggest drug producing regions in the world. There is Myanmar and Thailand in the Golden Triangle and India in the Golden Ways. Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan are in the Golden Crescent. Bangladesh has direct and indirect communication routes with these places. Due to geopolitical and strategic reasons, in the start of the eighties opium, that is, heroin production increased in these regions. This made Bangladesh’s geostrategic location even more important to international drug traffickers.

Discussions had been held with Myanmar against yaba trafficking, but why did this not prove successful? At one time the entry of phensidyl from India had also dropped, but is on a rise again.

The strategic position of Myanmar’s military junta may be to get a share of Bangladesh’s growing economy by means of drug smuggling and also to destroy the youth of the country. And all sorts of national and international equations are involved in the phensidyl, brown sugar and other narcotic substances coming in from India. The Mumbai-based German multinational Rhone-Poulenc legally manufactures phensidyl in India. This is a contraband drug in Bangladesh. From the beginning of the eighties, phensidyl was smuggled into Bangladesh as a narcotic substance. When official attempts were made to draw the Indian government’s attention to the matter, they acted ignorant. For almost over three decades this was considered to be the main hallucinatory drug for the youth in Bangladesh. But over the past decade or so, the yaba culture grew and Indian phensidyl took second place. Neither India nor Myanmar has genuinely taken Bangladesh’s drug problem into cognizance.

There is long-standing allegation that drug traffickers have local political patronage and support of some members of the law enforcement. The name of a ruling party leader (then a member of parliament) was on the list of yaba smugglers drawn up by a government agency. There are many instances where members of the law enforcement have been caught in possession of drugs. Does this not question the government’s political commitment to crack down on drugs?

It is a burning question as to whether the grave state of drug trafficking in the country could have reached this level without political and administrative patronage. The drug problem began back in colonial times with state instigation, management and planning of the British government. I have highlighted the issue in my 2019 book, Colonial Drug Trade in South Asia: From Plassey to Partition.

Sometimes the cat is let out of the bag by the media about the businessmen tucked away in Bangladesh’s parliament. But it does not seem anyone has any political liability whatsoever. And is a derailed section of the administration support them. They frame innocent people by placing drugs on their body while search them, thus earning money as well as public ire. This is an unfortunate situation for a civilised society and puts the role of the state and the government in question. Unless this is addressed, no initiative against drugs will prove effective.

There are only four government rehabilitation centres to treat drug addiction. And outside of this, there are 365 rehab centres approved by the government. But the quality and management of these centres are questionable.

Given the prevailing circumstances, every district should have a government drug rehabilitation centre. The number of privately run rehab centres also needs to be increased. These government and private centres need to be closely monitored by the department of narcotics control. Social rehabilitation of those emerging from these centres is vital. There can be a trilateral network of the social welfare ministry, the narcotics control department and the rehab centres in this regard.

New sorts of drugs have been seized in the country in recent times. Various research has pointed out that over the past decade or so, the number of drug users in the country has gone up from around 2 million (20 lakh) to around 7 million (70 lakh). That means the demand for drugs is on a rise. How and why has such a situation come about?

During the British colonial times, in order to create new markets, the British would open up marijuana, opium and liquor outlets to lure in the local youth. Before the British entered Myanmar, there had been strict restrictions, even death sentences, against narcotic substances there. When the country went under colonial rule, those prohibitions were lifted and a new drug culture was created with the help of English agents. It was the same in Sri Lanka and India during the British rule. In post-independence times of these countries, it wasn’t possible to completely wipe out that economic lure of the drug trade. Syndicates continue to operate in Myanmar, India and Pakistan to manufacture and trade drugs.

To get to the actual solution of the drug problem, attention must be paid to three issues. Firstly is to control the supply line created by the neighbouring countries. Secondly is to curb domestic demand. And thirdly is to ensure the treatment and social rehabilitation of the drug users. If even one of these factors is dropped, a tangible solution will not be possible.

A 2018 report of the government indicated that many students who used drugs were also involved in drug peddling. Yet the government has no programme to include the guardians and educational institutions in the efforts to uproot drugs.

It is nothing surprising for any drug using student to take up drug peddling to fund his habit. Following the government report of 2018, drug prevention committees were formed in the educational institutions but I do not know of any long-term plan or measures. Dope tests can be made compulsory at educational institutions.

In the new reality created by Covid, new chain managements will emerge. Addicts of well-to-do families are getting drugs delivered to their homes or in their localities. The law enforcement has to review the matter.

Do you thing the government has any well-thought-out plan of action to tackle the grave problem of drugs? Can this problem be solved simply by depending on the law enforcement? What should the government do?

Unfortunately, most of the programmes in our administrative system are conducted on an ad hoc basis. There are many shortcomings in taking up coordinated and planned action, and also in analysing the results of such actions. Even so, Bangladesh has quite successfully crossed the MDG and is going along with the SDG. Alongside that, there is the government’s Vision 2021 and Vision 2041 aimed at economic growth. This gives the nation hope. But it is not clear why the matter of tackling drugs has not been included in such big national aims. The policy makers must look into these questions. Unless drugs can be brought under control, none of the government’s goals can be achieved.

* This interview appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

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