STRONG ARM OF THE STATE
Is the ED becoming a tool in the hands of the government to settle political scores?
When Rajendra S. Bidhuri, Congress MLA from Begu in Chittorgarh district, informed Dinesh M.N., IGP, Anti-Corruption Bureau, about SHO Virendra Singh Charan offering him a Rs 50 lakh share of the bribes he collects from the illegal opium husk trade, the top cop was taken aback. “It’s not very often that we get such cases of a ‘reverse trap’,” he says. He had reason to believe the SHO’s claims—in a recorded conversation with Bidhuri, Charan said that his area yields Rs 4 crore in opium bribes annually. In January this year, the ACB had caught deputy commissioner, Central Bureau of Narcotics (CBN), Kota Sahi Ram Meena, for taking hefty bribes to facilitate the illicit opium traffic. Three more officials had landed in the net in April. Shortly after the tip-off, the ACB arrested SHO Charan after trapping his agent.
The law heavily regulates opium cultivation in India, including the 37,000 licensed fields in six districts of Rajasthan. The CBN procures opium for various agencies for medicinal use. Since 2016, the government has ordered the burning of poppy husk which earlier was sold through licensed vends on medical prescriptions but was freely available. The CBN, along with the police and excise department, take a series of steps to earmark the opium grown on every field. They record how the crop is doing, how much sap drips out of freshly lanced poppies, collect the crop when it is ready and ensure the husk is burnt.
Bureau officials designate one farmer as chief of a few growers to facilitate licensing and supervision, but it’s hardly efficient. Says Saurabh Srivastava, ADG, ACB: “Farmers always want to produce more, so that they can sell the extra illegally. The supposed regulators take a cut for looking the other way. This includes every violation such as declaring a crop damaged when it is not or husk burnt when it is being smuggled out.”
In the case of Sahi Ram
Meena, the ACB recovered Rs 2.5 crore in cash and assets worth Rs 200 crore. Bribes at the field level are estimated to run up to Rs 100 crore each year. The money officials extort during transport and distribution is anybody’s guess. SHO Charan has alleged that collectors and police chiefs of the opium-growing districts get a share of the bribes, which led to C.P. Joshi, BJP MP from Chittorgarh, calling for a CBI investigation and narco tests of prominent officials and politicians in opium-growing areas including himself.
There are already allegations that Bidhuri got the SHO arrested so that he could get his man into the lucrative post. Illegal opium is sold to addicts in most parts of the state en route to Punjab and Haryana. In ‘Udta Rajasthan’, very few want to take on the illegal trade fearing the wrath of the opium farmers, a powerful vote bank.
SAPPING An opium field in full bloom in rural Nimbahera, Chittorgarh