Earlier this month, on 04 December 2021, at an event to commemorate the 64th foundation day of the Department of Revenue Intelligence (DRI), the Honourable Minister for Finance and Corporate Affairs, Shrimati Nirmala Seetharaman, released the Smuggling in India Report 2020-21.[1]  The report bring out brings out that with a long coastline and numerous ports, India is “sensitive to drug trafficking through maritime routes.”[2]  As per the report, there has been a significant increase in the seizure of heroin in the Arabian Sea in 2020-21 with major seizures in India from containerised cargo originating from Afghanistan.[3]  Drawing a link with national security, the report highlights that illicit trafficking in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) could finance anti-national activities (narcoterrorism).[4]  Based on previous seizures from boats/ ships emanating from the Gulf Region, and continuing restrictions for travel by air and land routes—now exacerbated with the Omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 Virus—the report predicts that the sea route will continue to be exploited in the future as well.[5]  The report highlighted the need for “monitoring the territorial waters and import consignments arriving through the sea route.”[6]

Literally, the term ‘drug’ is an “illegal substance that some people smoke, inject, etc. for the physical and mental effects it has.”[7]  The NDPS Act, 1985 defines “narcotic drugs” as “coca leaf, cannabis (hemp), opium, poppy straw and includes all manufactured drugs” and “psychotropic substance” as any “substance, natural or synthetic, or any natural material or any salt or preparation of such substance or material included in the list of psychotropic substances specified in the Schedule [to the Act].”[8] For example, cocaine (coca derivative) and heroin (opium derivative) are narcotic drugs, and methamphetamine is a psychotropic substance.[9]

The United Nations (UN) Secretary-General’s 2008 report identifies illicit trafficking in NDPS as one of the seven threats to maritime security.[10] More recently, the presidential statement of the UN Security Council on maritime security, under the item “maintenance of international peace and security,” has noted the problem of transnational organised crimes committed at sea, including illicit trafficking in NDPS.[11]  The Security Council has also called upon member states to consider ratifying or acceding to international conventions in this regard.

The Indian Maritime Doctrine (updated version 2015) recognises the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) as a “hotbed of narco-terrorism, smuggling, gun running and associated crimes,” and the need to counter such threats in conjunction with the coast guard, navies and law enforcement agencies.[12] Likewise, the Indian Maritime Security Strategy (2015) also recognises trafficking in drugs as a non-traditional threat to maritime security.[13]  The “Colombo Declaration,” at a meeting of interior ministers of the IOR to counter drug trafficking in 2016, determined that “narcotic drug trafficking in the Indian Ocean poses a threat to peace and security in the region and its possible link to organized crime and funding of terrorism.”[14]

It has been assessed that the trafficking of heroin and other drugs from the Makran coast to countries in South Asia and Southeast Asia has been on the rise in the last few years.[15] In this light, the article attempts to explore the maritime dimensions of drug trafficking in India and the changing contours over the past decade.  It also makes some recommendations for strengthening drug law enforcement from a maritime perspective.


Major Seizures in India: 2021 

There have been a number of drug seizures this year.  In January and February this year, the Information Fusion Centre-Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR) reported four cases of seizures of cannabis from Tamil Nadu: three in January and one in February.[16]  On 18 March 2021, the Coast Guard apprehended three foreign boats carrying heroin, AK-47 assault rifles and 1,000 rounds of ammunition off Lakshadweep.[17]  Based on a statement by the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB)—subsequently corroborated by the DRI in its annual report—the IFC-IOR highlighted the incident as an example of possible linkages between illegal narcotics trade and terrorism, and the possibility of smuggling routes being exploited for more sinister purposes.[18]  On 07 March 2021, based on specific intelligence, the Coast Guard and the NCB seized a Sri Lankan fishing vessel off the Vizhinjam coast in Kerala.[19]  The investigations revealed that the crew had procured 100 kilogram (kg) of hashish and 150 kg of methamphetamine from a Pakistani boat in the high seas and were on the way back to Sri Lanka, but had dumped the contraband on sighting the coast guard ship.[20]

On 15 April 2021, in a joint operation with Gujarat Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS), the Coast Guard seized 30 kg of heroin off Jakhau, Gujarat, from a Pakistani boat.  Later in the same month, the Indian Navy seized 337 kg of heroin in the Arabian Sea in a joint operation with the NCB.[21]  As per the press release, the drug smuggling routes emanating from the Makran coast were flowing towards destinations in India, Maldives and Sri Lanka and the “spoils of narcotics trade feed syndicates involved in terrorism, radicalisation and criminal activities.”[22]  Almost two months later, on 06 July 2021, the Coast Guard also seized 19 packets of drugs, suspected to be charas,[23] that had been dumped at sea off Kutch, Gujarat.[24] On the east coast too, on 21 April 2021, the DRI seized 300 kg of cocaine at Tuticorin Port.[25]

The second half of 2021 however exposed a new dimension of drug trafficking into India.  In July 2021 and October 2021, the Indian authorities seized 294 kg and 25 kg of heroin from Mumbai/Nhava Sheva Port in goods declared as talcum powder and vegetable oils respectively.[26]  On 13 September 2021— in reportedly the largest drug haul in India—the DRI detained two containers that had arrived at Mundra Port, Gujarat, from Kandahar, Afghanistan, via Bandar Abbas, Iran.[27]  Subsequent examination led to the seizure of 3,004 kg of heroin from lower layers of jumbo-sized bags containing unprocessed talc powder.  Follow-up operations led to additional seizures in Delhi and Noida, and arrest of eight persons, including foreign nationals.  These incidents, point to a similar modus operandi being adopted by the traffickers: concealing drugs in containerised consignments originating in Iranian ports of Chabahar/ Bandar Abbas to the west coast of India for trafficking.[28]   Subsequently, on 02 October 2021, the NCB, in an undercover operation, seized drugs from a cruise ship off the west coast between Mumbai and Goa.[29]  On the east coast, on 26 September 2021, Indian Customs seized 150 kg of ganja from a fishing boat at Nagapattinam harbour, Tamil Nadu and on 09 October 2021, Indian authorities apprehended four suspects and seized 530 kg of cannabis from Tharuvaikulam, Tamil Nadu.[30]


International Trafficking Routes 

In 2015, a United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC) study brought out that while the traditional route of opiates from Afghanistan was through land routes (Balkan Route), a changing trend was the development of the “Southern Route.”[31]  This Southern Route—essentially a collection of routes (and organised groups) —was facilitating a southerly flow of heroin out of Afghanistan to diverse locations in Africa, Asia, Central and Western Europe and Oceania. Trafficking undertaken using sea routes involved sending larger consignments by boats (vis-à-vis air and mail routes) .  The report assessed India as the main destination market in South Asia and China as the largest potential revenue source in Southeast/East Asia.[32]

Based on seizures between 2014–16 in Maldives, Sri Lanka and the Seychelles, it emerged that one of the maritime routes from the Makran coast was focused on the eastern Indian Ocean (Sri Lanka and Maldives), with the route perhaps curving further west to the Seychelles.[33]  The Southern Sea Route on the western Indian Ocean, focused on Yemen and East African coast, is also widely known as the “hash highway” and the “smack track.”[34] As per the 2019 annual report of International Narcotics Control Bureau (INCB):[35]

South Asia, in particular Sri Lanka, has experienced an increase in seizures of heroin due to the growing use of the southern route by drug traffickers.  Most of the heroin that is smuggled through the so-called “southern route” to reach South Asia (from Afghanistan to Pakistan and then to South Asia) is of Afghan origin and has the final destination of North America.

The 2020 World Drug Report by the UNODC identifies the world’s main drug trafficking routes based on reported seizures for the period 2014–18.[36] This includes three relatively low-volume heroin routes from the Makran coast to East Africa, Southern Africa and Southeast Asia [Southern Route], and a low-volume cocaine route from South America to South Asia.[37] The 2021 World Drug Report has inter alia found that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the use of waterways routes by traffickers, and  has also increased shipment size, a fact that has also been substantiated domestically by the DRI.[38] Reportedly, in 12 ports in Europe witnessed an18 per cent increase in seizure of cocaine.[39]

An overview of the maritime security situation for the year 2020 by the Information Fusion Centre (IFC), Singapore in their area of interest, assessed four modus operandi for contraband smuggling (including drugs): the use of small vessels, including for transhipment at sea; use of fishing vessels, many without any tracking system (“dark” fishing); setting contraband adrift, especially for low-value contraband (including to avoid apprehension); and smuggling in containers.[40]  Notably, similar trends have been observed in India as well.  The report also highlighted that high density of fishing vessels operating in narrow waters, such as between India and Sri Lanka, facilitated concealment of illegal activities, with some incidents pointing to historical patterns.[41]

Specifically, with regard to drug smuggling, the report highlighted that the region of Myanmar, bordering Thailand, continued to manufacture psychotropic substances (methamphetamines) and that Thailand remained the hub of transfer of methamphetamines to countries in the region and beyond (notably including in containerised cargo).[42]  This included smuggling of yaba tablets from Myanmar to Bangladesh.[43] A spike in cannabis seizures was reported in 2020 which was attributable to seizures of adrift cannabis in South Asia, particularly near the India–Pakistan maritime boundary and in the waters between India and Sri Lanka.[44] The report further noted that the majority of heroin smuggled from the Makran coast via sea (Southern  Route) was actually destined for Europe  via the “hash highway” and “smack track”, with a lesser portion to countries in South Asia (India, Sri Lanka, Maldives). The latter being the easternmost track of the Southern Route (designated as “Eastern Southern Route” for the purposes of this article).[45] While other types of drugs were also seized in the IOR, the number of such seizures was relatively less.


Trends in India 

India’s location between two of the largest opium producing (and trafficking) areas in the world — the “Golden Crescent” in the west and “Golden Triangle” in the east—and adjoining the Southern Route makes it particularly vulnerable to illicit trafficking of drugs.[46] India is, in fact, seen as both a destination and a transit route for opiates produced in the region.[47]  There is limited open source data on drug trafficking India using the maritime route.  Some of these are described in subsequent paragraphs.

A study, in the early 2010s, had highlighted that traffickers from the Afghanistan–Pakistan region were looking at the sea as an alternative route for trafficking in view of increased vigil along the land borders.[48] Consequently, drugs were being smuggled into India through the Rann of Kutch in country-made boats.[49] In addition, dhows operating between Gujarat/Maharashtra and the Arabian Peninsula were also engaged in drug trafficking.[50]  In the southern coast, the Tamil Nadu–Sri Lanka sector was identified as an exit route for heroin smuggled in from Afghanistan and Pakistan; and the Tamil Nadu coast was also a transit point for indigenously produced “brown sugar” which was further transhipped to European and American markets.[51] Further, the study identified the use of small fishing boats in southern India to ship drugs to Maldives and Sri Lanka.[52] It highlighted that ports, such as Kochi, Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai, were transit ports for drug trafficking, with Mumbai also being a destination port of drugs from Pakistan and West Africa.[53] Overall, the study identified Maldives, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, along with East Asia (China), Southeast Asia, Europe and America, as some of the destinations of drug trafficking using the sea routes.

Another modus operandi, unveiled in 2018, involved drug transfers along the Southern Route from dhows to smaller boats about 150 nm from the Gujarat coast, followed by landing at Mandvi (Gujarat).  The drugs were then taken to one of Asia’s largest spice market at Unjha (Gujarat), and from there to Punjab by road, hidden under spice bags and “camouflaged” as cumin seeds.[54]  It does bear note that between 2019–21, Indian agencies, in joint operations, have apprehended Pakistani boats engaged in drug trafficking off the Gujarat coast.[55] In August 2020, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) also launched an investigation on heroin smuggling through the sea route, based on a drug seizure in Salaya (Gujarat).[56]  In November 2021, investigations by the Gujarat Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) into a heroin seizure made inland in Gujarat revealed that a conspiracy launched in UAE involved delivery of the drugs from the Makran coast to Africa via India using the sea route; however, the drugs in this case had been diverted into India instead.[57]

As per an investigation by the NCB earlier this year, the modus operandi for the “Eastern Southern Route” encompassed mid-sea transfer of drugs between Iranian and Pakistani fishing vessels with Sri Lankan and Maldivian fishing vessels.[58]  These transfers reportedly took place “in the territorial waters of India or very near to its territorial waters.”[59]  The apprehension of a Sri Lankan boat in November 2020 south of Tuticorin, with drugs, arms and a satellite phone, also pointed to drug transfer from a Pakistani dhow.[60]  The NCB investigation further revealed that the international drug racket is spread across Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Australia and India, with Sri Lanka and Maldives being important “transit points.” The racket was purportedly being operated by Pakistani drug traffickers lodged in Sri Lankan jails, and two other Sri Lankan nationals who had fled to India.[61] The two important points that emerged from the NCB investigation are: first, coastal waters off the west coast of India are possible areas of transhipment; and second, there is involvement of transnational organised criminal syndicates in illicit trafficking of drugs.

In addition to narcotic drugs, South Asia is also emerging as a new destination for methamphetamine.[62] In September and December 2019, the Coast Guard apprehended two Myanmarese boats with ketamine and methaqualone in the Andaman Sea.[63]  In the former case, the contraband was reportedly destined for a Southeast Asian country.[64]

From the above, and some of the important cases of drug seizures in 2021 that have been discussed earlier in the article, and inputs from the monthly updates of IFC-IOR in 2020-21, some of the salient points that emerge are as follows:[65]

  • In the past decade, as is evinced from increased drug seizures at sea and in ports, there appears to be an increase in the use of sea routes for trafficking of NDPS. An overview of previous reports and other inputs indicate that traffickers adapt quickly to the changing environment and circumstances.[66]
  • While the primary method for drug trafficking in the region traditionally has been through small boats/fishing boats and dhows, more recently, drugs are being illegally shipped through shipping containers.
  • The Southern Route—a collection of maritime routes— has emerged as one of the major drug trafficking routes by sea in the Indian Ocean (Figure 1). One of the routes in the Arabian Sea, from the Makran coast towards Sri Lanka and Maldives, is of particular concern to India as it transits through the Indian maritime zones, including the territorial seas (the “Eastern Southern Route”).[67]
  • Seizures in the Andaman Seas are indicative of the existence of a route off Andaman and Nicobar.
  • Adrift drugs/drugs washed ashore have been discovered in several instances, particularly off Jakhau (Gujarat).
  • While the majority of the seizures in India were reported from Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, and off Lakshadweep and Kerala, the second half of 202, there has been an increase in reports of apprehensions from Mumbai (Maharashtra).
  • Significant seizures were made in the ports on the west coast (Mumbai and Mundra) from containerised cargo.
  • While cannabis, and its derivatives, were the most common seizures made by Indian agencies, in the second half there were significant seizures of heroin (Mumbai and Mundra). In the past, methamphetamine has also been seized by Indian authorities.
  • Considering the location of the routes and modes of trafficking, effective coastal (and port) security is a facilitator to counter drug trafficking.
  • As highlighted in the DRI annual report, the sheer volumes of trade make it impractical to check all consignments, necessitating newer approaches, such as data analytics. Likewise, the presence of large number of fishing boats and the absence of tracking devices on smaller vessels facilitates concealment of illicit activities at sea by smaller vessels.
  • A number of seizures were undertaken by a host of agencies, including the Border Security Force, Coast Guard, Customs, DRI, Port Authorities, Police (including state marine police, ATS, marine task force, special branch), NCB, etc. Some of these seizures were undertaken through coordinated operations.
  • Drug seizures were also made in neighbouring countries in South Asia, namely, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. This included seizure by Sri Lankan authorities in the northern areas and in the south, at ranges of up to 600 nautical miles (nm) from Sri Lanka.

Figure 1:  Southern Route (including ‘Eastern’ Southern Route off the Indian coast) and Trafficking Areas [for representational purposes only].  Figure collated by the author; Map underlay courtesy Google Maps.

Having discussed the routes and trends, in the next section, the overall construct for drug law enforcement in India will be discussed.


Drug Law Enforcement in India 

In India, the NCB is the nodal agency for preventing and combating drug abuse and illicit trafficking in NDPS.[68]  The NCB is also responsible for coordination with all national and international agencies, as also for fulfilling India’s international obligations under international conventions.  It operates through three regions, 13 zonal units, and 12 sub-zones.  Since 2004, the NCB has been providing financial assistance to states and union territories for strengthening drug enforcement measures; and it also undertakes training programmes for agencies of the centre and state in drug enforcement.  Notwithstanding the nodal role of the NCB, multiple agencies are engaged in drug law enforcement, such as the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Coast Guard, Customs, DRI, Police, etc.[69]

Some of the major initiatives taken by the Government of India to stop drug trafficking in India include: a four-layer coordinating mechanism up to the level of districts in the form a Narco Coordination Centre (NCORD) to coordinate between agencies of the central and state governments;[70] a Joint Coordination Committee (JIC) under the chairpersonship of Director General, NCB, to coordinate investigation of major cases;[71] legal empowerment of ‘border guarding forces,’  for drug enforcement functions (Coast Guard from a maritime perspective); intelligence sharing across drug law enforcement agencies; digitisation of seizure data through the Seizure Information Management System (SIMS); and, surveillance and enforcement at import and export points at land and maritime borders; and interdiction efforts along known drug routes.[72]

As a part of international cooperation charter, the NCB has 27 bilateral agreements and 16 Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) with other countries/organisations.  Director General-level talks are also held with several countries, including Myanmar, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.[73] Further, the NCB coordinates with various regional organisations for information and intelligence sharing to combat transnational drug trafficking.[74] Likewise, other drug law enforcement agencies also have established mechanisms for international coordination.  Specifically, India is also a member of the Southern Route Partnership (SRP) framework under the Indian Ocean Forum on Maritime Crime (IOFMC).[75]

From a maritime perspective, the Coast Guard has been empowered under the NDPS Act, 1985.   It has several MoUs on combating transnational crime and illegal activities at sea with foreign coast guards/equivalent, and also shares intelligence/information on drug trafficking with countries such as Sri Lanka.[76] In addition, Section 56 of the NDPS Act, 1985 mandates that “all officers of the several departments mentioned in Section 42 shall, upon notice given or request made, be legally bound to assist each other in carrying out the provisions of this Act.” [77] The list also includes the armed forces (thereby the Indian Navy from a maritime perspective), customs and police organisations.

In addition to the DRI, drug interdiction operations undertaken by Indian agencies have also been based on intelligence provided by other intelligence agencies, such as technical intelligence provided by the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO).  In 2017, inputs from the NTRO led to a record haul of 1,500 kg of heroin valued at over Rs 3,500 crore by the Coast Guard in the Arabian Sea.[78]  Another example is in May 2019, when the DRI, in coordination with the NTRO and the coast guard, apprehended 218 kg of heroin off the Gujarat coast.[79] 

Broadly, the following points are relevant to drug law enforcement in India: first, drug law enforcement, especially maritime drug law enforcement, is essentially a multi-stakeholder activity involving central and state agencies, and therefore, countering trafficking in NDPS will need to be based on strong inter-agency linkages; second, intelligence inputs, particularly technical intelligence, have proved to be essential for effective drug law enforcement; third, while anti-trafficking operations at sea are targeted at ‘field operatives,’ effectively countering drug trafficking will also entail acting against transnational organised crime syndicates necessitating greater international cooperation, including for information and intelligence sharing.


Strengthening Maritime Drug Law Enforcement: Imperatives

Having discussed the trends in NDPS trafficking through the sea routes and organisation for drug law enforcement in India, some of the imperatives for strengthening maritime drug law enforcement in India are discussed in this section.

Inter-agency Coordination.  Anti-trafficking operations in the maritime domain typically involve synergised efforts between multiple central and state agencies, supported by intelligence agencies.  Contemporary challenges necessitate an integrated approach to maritime drug law enforcement.  In a little over the past decade, multiple forums for coordination specific measures—such as for maritime security, intelligence sharing and for drug law enforcement— have been set up which facilitate interaction between multiple stakeholders across levels of governance.  These include: the National Committee for Strengthening Maritime and Coastal Security (NCSMCS) against threats from the sea and subordinate bodies for maritime security; the NCORD and subordinate bodies for coordination in drug enforcement; and the Multi-Agency Centre (MAC)/Subsidiary MAC (SMAC) for intelligence sharing.  At an operational level, the Joint Operations Centre (JOC) and the “hub-and spoke” model of coordination between the coast guard and the marine police facilitate operational coordination between agencies involved in coastal security.  Progressively, these bodies need to be further cross-pollinated, and linkages strengthened, to ensure the swiftest possible action at sea.

Capacity Enhancement.  A large number of central and state agencies are involved in anti-drug trafficking operations both at sea and on the coast, including ports. Undertaking such activities requires specialised skills and equipment, such as drug detection kits.[80]  Likewise, criminal justice practitioners dealing with maritime crime also need requisite maritime orientation for prosecuting maritime crime. Consequently, capability enhancement of all central and state agencies that are envisaged to participate, or assist, in drug law enforcement operations in the maritime domain, or in the criminal justice process, would need to be an area of focus, including international exposure, where necessary.

Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA)-Data Analytics.   The challenge of tracking and identifying smaller vessels, which are one of major modes of transhipment of drugs, is one of the greatest challenges in achieving transparency at sea.  This can be mitigated to a great extent if own vessels can be positively identified without recourse to physical boarding.  Therefore, the need for a tracking system for smaller vessels in India remains an imperative from multiple perspectives, including safety, security and law enforcement.  However, just identification and generation of a common plot alone is not enough.  Improved understanding of the maritime domain, or MDA, also entails increasing integration and correlation of vessel movement data, largely available with maritime security agencies, with intelligence inputs as well as vessel-specific information, such as cargo and crew, which are available with specific stakeholders, such as intelligence agencies, DRI, NCB, Customs, fisheries department(s), port authorities, etc. This alone can facilitate a more holistic assessment of higher risks.  Instructively, DRI has already highlighted the importance of analytics for interdiction; however, analytics will need an integrated approach to be successful.  Developing and strengthening linkages between operation centres across maritime security agencies, intelligence agencies, as also information centres such as the Information Management and Analysis Centre (IMAC), would contribute to strengthening inter-agency coordination and facilitate informed decision making.  Notably, the 2021 World Drug Report recommends the improvement of surveillance and targeting capabilities and effective sharing of intelligence between national authorities and the private sector, such as shipping companies.[81]

Area and Point Security.  Drug smuggling is not only a crime by itself, but is a potential source of funding for terror groups and a possible threat to national security.  The seizure of arms in some cases points to the possibility of drug dealers also being involved with arms trafficking, and possibly with maritime terrorism as well.  The Mumbai blasts of 1993 is a poignant also a reminder of this possibility.  Smuggling of drugs into or out of the country through the sea route entails transit through the coast, including ports, fish landing centres, beaches, etc. Accordingly, DRI has highlighted the need for greater surveillance of coastal areas and monitoring of import consignments.[82]  Strengthening area security (coastal security) and point security measures—

particularly surveillance, fisheries Monitoring, Control And Surveillance (MCS), improved risk assessment of shipments, and community participation—is a deterrent for maritime crime.  The UNODC has highlighted that tracking suspicious shipments, by development of international accountability mechanisms, would increase interception capability.  The principles are equally applicable to shipping, fishing and other maritime sectors.

International Cooperation.  The need to enhance international cooperation to counter drug trafficking has been highlighted at both bilateral forums, such as with Sri Lanka, and multilateral forums, such as trilateral with Sri Lanka and Maldives, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and SRP.  The UNODC itself, in its 2021 report, has stated that “fostering international cooperation remains a key objective for fighting the enduring problem of drug trafficking.”[83]  India has multiple agreements with foreign countries/agencies for cooperation in drug enforcement and transnational organised crime.  Operationally, these have also translated into information and intelligence sharing for drug interdiction operations at sea.  These linkages need to be widened and further strengthened. In addition to agency-specific agreements, the IFC-IOR is particularly suited for information exchanges with international agencies, for making assessments, and for undertaking analysis of the wider contiguous maritime spaces.  Indian Navy ships which are mission-deployed in multiple areas of the IOR can, like other navies, also contribute to international, in accordance with international law, at suppression of illicit trafficking in the high seas, particularly along the “hash highway” and the “smack track.” 

Legal Regime.  Unlike piracy, which provides for universal jurisdiction, one of the unique challenges of drug enforcement at sea is that “no existing treaty expressly grants the authority to board a foreign-flagged vessel suspected of illicit trafficking of NDPS on waters seaward of the territorial sea of any State without flag State consent.”[84]  This is however without prejudice to the inherent right of visit when there are reasonable grounds to suspect that a vessel is without nationality. For example, an overwhelmingly large number of drug interdictions undertaken by the Combined Maritime Force (CMF) along the “hash highway” and the “smack track” were initially undertaken for flag verification.[85]  International cooperation mechanisms therefore will also need to consider bilateral agreements to facilitate boarding of vessels (ship-boarding agreements) by national agencies outside territorial seas, as has been done by some countries under the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation (SUA, 2005).



Drug addiction, in addition to health risks to individuals, has a negative effect on families in particular, and societies at large.  In addition, illegal trade in drugs finances other crimes, including terrorism, and threatens national security.  Trafficking of drugs is recognised as a maritime security threat which needs to be countered.  Accordingly, India has a vision for a drug-free India, and the Colombo Declaration called on littoral nations towards making the IOR a “Drug Free Zone.”[86]  Notably, the Home Minister, in his address at a BIMSTEC conference on combating drug trafficking in 2020, highlighted that “coastal States are sensitive and may become a gateway for illicit drugs entering India, which needs to be prevented.”[87]

In the past decade, the Southern Route emanating from Afghanistan has emerged as an alternative to the traditional land-based drug trafficking routes.  The maritime element of the Southern Route is a collection of routes that emerge from the Makran coast and lead to Yemen, East Africa and South Asia with the routes move thereon to other parts of the world.  In particular, the “Eastern Southern Route” that transits off the west coast of India, and as reports suggest, perhaps through the territorial seas as well, is of concern to India.  Some seizures in the past have also been undertaken in the Andaman Sea.  The increasing use of containerised shipments for trafficking of narcotic drugs, and the high volumes involved, is of particular concern.  A number of cases of drugs adrift at sea/ being washed ashore have also been reported.

Drug law enforcement in India is a multi-stakeholder activity.  The NCB is the nodal agency in the country; the DRI is the apex intelligence and investigative agency for matters relating to violation of the Customs Act (smuggling); and the coast guard is the primary maritime law enforcement agency.  In addition, a number of central and state agencies, including the Indian Navy and intelligence agencies, have been involved in anti-drug trafficking operations.  Several initiatives have been taken to suppress drug trafficking, including improving coordination amongst multiple agencies and strengthening state capacity.  Along with this, there has been increased engagement with international partners.

The imperatives for strengthening maritime drug enforcement in India are not particularly different from those for other maritime security threats.  Some of the measures include: capacity building of all stakeholders; strengthening institutions for inter-agency coordination; strengthening MDA, including small boat tracking; continued strengthening of mechanisms for coastal and port security, particularly risk assessments for cargo; and finally, strengthening international cooperation, including intelligence and information sharing.  The presence of Indian naval ships in multiple locations across the IOR also facilitates the possibility of contributing to international efforts at suppressing drug trafficking in the high seas, in accordance with international law.

In sum, the development of a drug trafficking route along the west coast of India in the past decade or so, and more recently, the increasing use of containers for drug trafficking into India have emerged as relatively new threats.  There are also indicators of the presence of drug routes in the Andaman Sea. The possible nexus with other maritime crimes, particularly, terrorism further exacerbates the problem.  While the recent successful operations point to a whole-of-government approach to deal with the menace of drug trafficking at sea, and also the effectiveness of the approach, there remain several challenges which will need to be collectively handled.  Finally, like for other maritime crimes—such as piracy—maritime drug law enforcement can only suppress the threat, not eradicate it.  While DRI has emphasised the need for a continuous vigil by drug law enforcement agencies, in the maritime domain, it will need a broader vigil, beyond just the drug law enforcement agencies.[88]  To deal with future challenges of the maritime dimensions of drug trafficking, the need is for a comprehensive multi-agency approach. 


About the Author

Captain Himadri Das is a serving Indian naval officer and is presently a Senior Fellow at the National Maritime Foundation (NMF).  The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Government of India or the Indian Navy.  He can be reached at csmda.nmf@gmail.com. 


Post Script

On 27 December 2022 the Union Home Minister chaired the 3rd meeting of the NCORD in New Delhi.  Specifically, from a maritime perspective, the decisions emerging from the meeting included special efforts by coastal states and union territories, including inclusion of maritime security agencies in state-level coordination committees, and strengthening of measures for scanning of containers in all ports. The press release is available at: https://pib.gov.in/PressReleasePage.aspx?PRID=1785840.



[1] “More Photos,” Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, https://dri.nic.in/main/mphotosdetails/2021, accessed 11 December 2021.

[2] DRI, Smuggling in India Report 2020-21, 19.  https://www.dri.nic.in/dri_report/ebook/.

[3] DRI, Smuggling in India Report 2020-21, 38.

[4] DRI, Smuggling in India Report 2020-21, 38.

[5] DRI, Smuggling in India Report 2020-21, 20.

[6] Smuggling in India Report 2020-21, 20.

[7] Oxford Learner’s Dictionary, s.v. “drug,” https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/drug_1?q=drugs.

[8] NDPS Act, 1985, Sections 2(xiv) and 2(xxiii),  https://www.indiacode.nic.in/bitstream/123456789/1791/1/198561.pdf.

[9] Heroin is also known as smack; cannabis as hashish/hash; cocaine as coke; methamphetamine as meth, ice; and combination of methamphetamine and caffeine as yaba/shabu (Southeast Asia). In Hindi, charas, ganja and bhang are derivatives from cannabis (hemp).

[10] UN General Assembly, “Oceans and the Law of the Sea: Report of the Secretary-General,” A/RES/63/63, 10 March 2008, https://www.refworld.org/docid/48da24e72.html.

[11] UN Security Council, “Statement by the President of the Security Council,” S/PRST/2021/15, 09 August 2021, https://undocs.org/S/PRST/2021/15.

[12] Indian Navy, Indian Maritime Doctrine (New Delhi: Integrated Headquarters of Ministry of Defence (Navy), 2015), pp. 60, 119, https://www.indiannavy.nic.in/sites/default/files/Indian-Maritime-Doctrine-2009-Updated-12Feb16.pdf.

[13] Indian Navy, Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy (New Delhi: Integrated Headquarters of Ministry of Defence (Navy), 2015), 40.

[14] United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC), “Colombo Declaration, submitted by Sri Lanka,” E/CN.7/2017/CRP.3, 07 March 2017, https://www.unodc.org/documents/commissions/CND/CND_Sessions/CND_60/CRPs/ECN72017_CRP3_V1701428.pdf.

[15] “Sri Lankan boat transporting 337 kgs heroin intercepted,” Press Information Bureau, 22 April 2021, https://pib.gov.in/PressReleasePage.aspx?PRID=1713450.

[16] IFC-IOR, “Monthly Maritime Security Update: January 2021,” 16–21; IFC-IOR, “Monthly Maritime Security Update: February 2021,” p. 16, https://www.indiannavy.nic.in/ifc-ior/IFC_IOR_MMSU_FEB%2021.pdf.

[17] “3 foreign boats carrying arms, drugs intercepted off Lakshadweep,” The Economic Times, 19 March 2021, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/3-foreign-boats-carrying-arms-drugs-intercepted-off-lakshadweep/articleshow/81581029.cms?from=mdr.

[18] IFC-IOR, “Monthly Maritime Security Update: March 2021,” 9.

[19] “Sri Lankan boat transporting 100 kgs of Hashish and 150 kgs Methamphetamine intercepted in Indian waters,” Press Information Bureau, 11 March 2021, https://pib.gov.in/PressReleseDetail.aspx?PRID=1704188.

[20] “Sri Lankan boat transporting 100 kgs of Hashish and 150 kgs Methamphetamine intercepted in Indian waters,” Press Information Bureau,

[21] “Sri Lankan boat transporting 337 kgs Heroin intercepted,” Press Information Bureau, 22 April 2021, https://pib.gov.in/PressReleasePage.aspx?PRID=1713450.

[22] Ministry of Defence, “Indian Navy Seizes Narcotics worth Rs 3000 Crore,” Press Information Bureau, 19 April 2021, https://pib.gov.in/PressReleaseIframePage.aspx?PRID=1712672.

[23] Charas is defined in Section 2(iii)(a) of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act, 1985 as: “the separated resin, in whatever form, whether crude or purified, obtained from the cannabis plant and also includes concentrated preparation and resin known as hashish oil or liquid hashish.” See https://legislative.gov.in/sites/default/files/A1985-61.pdf.

[24] IFC-IOR, “Monthly Maritime Security Update: March 2021,” 13.

[25] Ministry of Finance, “DRI seizes more than 300 kg of cocaine valued at approx. Rs. 2,000 crore in international market at Tuticorin Port,” Press Information Bureau, 21 April 2021, https://pib.gov.in/PressReleseDetailm.aspx?PRID=1713306.

[26] Ministry of Finance, “DRI seizes 25 kg heroin concealed in oil cans at the Nhava Sheva Port,” 09 October 2021. https://pib.gov.in/PressReleasePage.aspx?PRID=1762477.  Before that, in August 2020, DRI Mumbai had seized 191.6 Kgs Heroin at Nhava Sheva port from yet another consignment of Afghanistan origin concealed as medicinal herbs (mulethi).

[27] Ministry of Finance, “DRI seizes 3004 kg of Heroin at Mundra – Arrest eight persons,” Press Information Bureau, 22 September 2021, https://pib.gov.in/PressReleaseIframePage.aspx?PRID=1757062; “Largest heroin haul in India: Rs 21,000 crore worth drugs seized at Gujarat’s Mundra port,” Manorama, 22 September 2021, https://www.onmanorama.com/news/india/2021/09/22/largest-heroin-haul-21000-crore-drugs-heroin-bust-mundra-port-gujarat.html.

[28] Ministry of Finance, “DRI seizes 25 kg heroin concealed in oil cans at the Nhava Sheva Port.”

[29] Alok Deshpande, “Shah Rukh Khan’s son Aryan Khan among three arrested after drug bust on cruise ship off Mumbai,” The Hindu, 03 October 2021, https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/mumbai/shah-rukh-khans-son-aryan-khan-arrested-after-ncb-busts-drugs-party-off-mumbai/article36806752.ece;

[30] Janardhan Koushik, “Customs officials seize 150 kilos of ganja from Tamil YouTuber’s boat,” The Indian Express, 28 September 2021, https://indianexpress.com/article/india/customs-officials-seize-150-kilos-ganja-tamil-youtubers-boat-7539084/; IFC-IOR, “Monthly Maritime Security Update: October 2021,” 15.

[31] UNODC, Afghan Opiate Trafficking through the Southern Route (Vienna: UNODC, 2015), 10–11, https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/Studies/Afghan_opiate_trafficking_southern_route_web.pdf.

[32]  UNODC, Afghan Opiate Trafficking through the Southern Route, 11.

[33] Indian Ocean Forum on Maritime Crime (IOFMC), UNODC and Southern Route Partnership (SRP), “Drug Trafficking on the Southern Route and Impact on Coastal States,” 26 October 2016, http://www.southernroute.org/download/Drug%20Trafficking%20on%20the%20Southern%20Route.pdf, accessed 23 March 2021.

[34] Abdullah Mohammed Mubaraki, “A Comparative Study of the Combined Maritime Force (CMF) and the Djibouti Code of Conduct (DCOC) Aimed at Maintaining Maritime Security in the Area of the Western Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden,” World Maritime University Dissertations, 11 March 2020, 30, https://commons.wmu.se/all_dissertations/1386.

[35] INCB, Report of the International Narcotics Control Board for 2019 (Vienna: UN Publication, 2020), 89, https://www.incb.org/documents/Publications/AnnualReports/AR2019/Annual_Report_Chapters/AR2019_Chapter_III_Asia.pdf.

[36] UNODC, World Drug Report 2020 (Vienna: UN Publication, 2020), 8,  https://wdr.unodc.org/wdr2020/field/WDR20_BOOKLET_1.pdf.

[37] UNODC, World Drug Report 2020, 8.

[38] UNODC, World Drug Report 2021 (Vienna: UN Publication, 2021), 13, https://www.unodc.org/res/wdr2021/field/WDR21_Booklet_1.pdf.

[39] UNODC, “Speech by Ghada Waly, Director-General/Executive Director: United Nations Security Council High Level Virtual Open Debate ‘Enhancing Maritime Security: A Case for International Cooperation’,” 09 August 2021, https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/speeches/2021/unsc-maritime-090821.html, accessed 04 October 2021.

[40] IFC (Singapore), MARSEC Situation in IFC AOI 2020 (2020), 34, https://www.ifc.org.sg/ifc2web/app_pages/User/common/SharingPublications.cshtml. The data is collated from open sources and partners, and the area of interest of the IFC covers a major part of the Indo-Pacific region.

[41] IFC (Singapore), MARSEC Situation in IFC AOI 2020, 35.

[42] IFC (Singapore), MARSEC Situation in IFC AOI 2020,71.

[43] IFC (Singapore), MARSEC Situation in IFC AOI 2020, 71.  See Note 17.

[44] IFC (Singapore), MARSEC Situation in IFC AOI 2020, 72.

[45] IFC (Singapore), MARSEC Situation in IFC AOI 2020, 72.

[46] The “Golden Crescent” includes Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan; and the “Golden Triangle” includes Laos, Myanmar and Thailand; see INCB, Report of the International Narcotics Control Board for 2019, 88.

[47] UNODC, “India,” https://www.unodc.org/pdf/india/publications/south_Asia_Regional_Profile_Sept_2005/10_india.pdf, accessed 24 March 2021.

[48] Pushpita Das, “Drug Trafficking in India: A Case for Border Security,” IDSA Occasional Paper No. 24, 2012, 16, https://idsa.in/system/files/OP_DrugTraffickinginIndia.pdf.  

[49] Das, “Drug Trafficking in India: A Case for Border Security,” 16.

[50] Das, “Drug Trafficking in India: A Case for Border Security,” 35.

[51] NCB, Annual Report 2000–2001, p. 8, cited in  Das, “Drug Trafficking in India: A Case for Border Security,”34.

[52] Das, “Drug Trafficking in India: A Case for Border Security,” 34.

[53] Das, “Drug Trafficking in India: A Case for Border Security,” 34–36.

[54] Manas Dasgupta, “Sea corridor new smuggling route,” The Tribune, 10 February 2020, https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/features/sea-corridor-new-smuggling-route-38032.

[55] DRI, Smuggling in India Report 2019–2020 (2020), p. 105.

[56] NIA, “NIA Cases,” https://www.nia.gov.in/case-detail.htm?343, accessed 24 March 2021.

[57] Press Trust of India, “120kg heroin worth ₹600 crore seized in Gujarat, 3 arrested: Police,” The Hindustan Times, 16 November 2021.  https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/120kg-heroin-worth-rs-600-crore-seized-in-gujarat-3-arrested-police-101637001864882.html.

[58] “Pakistanis jailed in Lanka pushing drugs into India through sea: NCB,” The Indian Express, 23 January 2021, https://indianexpress.com/article/india/pakistanis-jailed-in-lanka-pushing-drugs-into-india-through-sea-ncb-7157982/.

[59] “Pakistanis jailed in Lanka pushing drugs into India through sea: NCB,” The Indian Express.

[60] Rajat Pandit, “Coast Guard seizes 100 kg heroin from Sri Lankan boat off Tamil Nadu,” The Times of India,         25 November 2020, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/coast-guard-seizes-100kg-heroin-from-sri-lankan-boat-off-tamil-nadu/articleshow/79411428.cms.

[61] “Pakistanis jailed in Lanka pushing drugs into India through sea: NCB,” The Indian Express.

[62] UNODC, Synthetic Drugs in East and Southeast Asia: Latest Developments and Challenges (2020), p. 8, https://www.unodc.org/documents/scientific/ATS/2020_ESEA_Regonal_Synthetic_Drug_Report_web.pdf.

[63] DRI, Smuggling in India Report 2019–2020, p. 105.

[64] Manjeet Negi, “Indian Coast Guard catches major drugs haul in Andaman Sea,” The Times of India, 21 September 2019, https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/indian-coast-guard-catches-major-drugs-haul-andaman-sea-1601625-2019-09-21.

[65] The monthly reports are essentially a collation of open-source information, including inputs from partner agencies, and analysis thereof.

[66] UNODC, World Drug Report 2021, p. 30.

[67] The designation of the “Eastern Southern Route” is meant for the purposes of this article only as a distinct route amongst the several “Southern Routes.”

[68] Ministry of Home Affairs, Annual Report 2019–20, 175, https://www.mha.gov.in/sites/default/files/AnnualReport_19_20.pdf.

[69] DRI, Smuggling in India Report 2020-21, 17.

[70] The NCORD was set up in 2016 and was extended to the district level in 2019.

[71] The JIC was set up in 2019.

[72] Ministry of Home Affairs, “Unstarred Question 1246: Drug Trafficking,” Lok Sabha, 09 February 2021,, accessed 23 March 2021; Ministry of Home Affairs, “Unstarred Question 3669: Drug Trafficking Cases,” Lok Sabha, 10 December 2019,   http://loksabhaph.nic.in/Questions/QResult15.aspx?qref=10120&lsno=17, accessed 23 March 2021.

[73] Ministry of Home Affairs, “Unstarred Question 459: Drug Trafficking,” Lok Sabha, 20 July 2021,  https://www.mha.gov.in/MHA1/Par2017/pdfs/par2021-pdfs/LS-20072021/459.pdf, accessed 14 December 2021.

[74] These include: South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Drug Offences Monitoring Desk (SDOMD); Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS); Colombo Plan; Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN); ASEAN Senior Officials on Drug Matters (ASOD); Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC); UNODC; and INCB.

[75] Ministry of Home Affairs, “Shri Hansraj Gangaram Ahir participated in the High Level Meeting of Interior Ministers of the Indian Ocean Region to Counter Drug Trafficking in Colombo, Sri Lanka,” Press Information Bureau, 10 November 2016, https://pib.gov.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=153498. The SRP is a contact group for national drug enforcement agencies, donors, international organisations and partner agencies to improve coordination and collaboration on counter-narcotics initiatives targeting drug trafficking on the Southern Route (http://www.southernroute.org/); and the IOFMC, under the UNODC Global Maritime Crime Programme (GMCP), provides a coordination and delivery mechanism, covering thematic areas for intervention, focusing primarily, but not limited to, on maritime drug trafficking, fisheries crime and smuggling of Somali charcoal (https://www.unodc.org/easternafrica/global-programmes/global-maritime-crime-prevention/index.html). Updated details of the SRP initiative are not available.

[76] Indian Coast Guard, “Memorandum of Understanding (MoU),” https://indiancoastguard.gov.in/content/1732_3_MoU.aspx, accessed 24 March 2021; Ministry of Defence, “Coast Guards of India and Sri Lanka agree to strengthen co-operation in addressing maritime issues,” Press Information Bureau, 20 August 2019, https://pib.gov.in/PressReleaseIframePage.aspx?PRID=1582466; Ministry of Defence, “Year End Review – 2020 Ministry of Defence,” Press Information Bureau, 1 January 2020,  https://pib.gov.in/Pressreleaseshare.aspx?PRID=1685437.

[77] Section 42 (Power of entry, search, seizure and arrest without warrant or authorisation) lists personnel from central excise, narcotics, customs, revenue intelligence or any other department of the central government, including paramilitary forces or armed forces, or personnel of the revenue, drugs control, excise, police or any other department of a state government. See https://www.indiacode.nic.in/bitstream/123456789/1791/1/198561.pdf.

[78] Ajit Kumar Dubey, “Gujarat coast drug haul: Pak villains sent shipment from Gwadar port in Balochistan,” India Today, 3 August 2017, https://www.indiatoday.in/mail-today/story/gujarat-coast-drug-haul-1500-kg-heroin-pakistan-send-shipment-gwadar-port-balochistan-1027694-2017-08-03.

[79] DRI, “Foreword,” in Smuggling in India Report 2019–2020.

[80] UNODC, “Drug and Precursor Identification Kits,” https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/scientists/druge-kits-new.html, accessed 04 October 2021.

[81] UNODC, World Drug Report 2021, 30.

[82] Smuggling in India Report 2020-21, 20.

[83] UNODC, World Drug Report 2021, 30.

[84] UNODC, Maritime Crime: A Manual for Criminal Justice Practitioners (2020), 146, https://www.unodc.org/documents/Maritime_crime/GMCP_Maritime_3rd_edition_Ebook.pdf.

[85] “The Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) is a multinational maritime partnership, which exists to uphold the International Rules-Based Order (IRBO) by countering illicit non-state actors on the high seas and promoting security, stability, and prosperity,” primarily in the western Indian Ocean. See https://combinedmaritimeforces.com/.

[86] Ministry of Home Affairs, “Shri Amit Shah inaugurates two-day BIMSTEC ‘Conference on Combating Drug Trafficking,’ in New Delhi today,” Press Information Bureau, 13 February 2020, https://pib.gov.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=199297; UNODC, “Colombo Declaration, submitted by Sri Lanka.”

[87] Ministry of Home Affairs, “Shri Amit Shah inaugurates two-day BIMSTEC ‘Conference on Combating Drug Trafficking,’ in New Delhi today.”

[88] DRI, Smuggling in India Report 2020-21, 29.





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