The Assam Rifles faces the twin challenges of checking smuggling and preventing illegal crossings into Mizoram even while overseeing the much-delayed and ambitious Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project. Dinakar Peri reports on the paramilitary force
Dressed in combat uniform and with AK-47 assault rifles slung over their shoulders, Jagriti, Sophie and Lucy are living their dream. The riflewomen, posted in Mizoram, are among the 200 women soldiers serving with the Assam Rifles in the Northeast and Jammu and Kashmir. Training in Assam Rifles for women began in 2013 and formal induction took place in 2014.
Jagriti, who hails from Aravalli district of Gujarat and is posted with 3 Assam Rifles battalion, said: “I have completed four years of service. Earlier, I was deployed in Nagaland, and Jammu and Kashmir, and took part in counter-insurgency operations. Throughout my childhood, I saw my uncle in uniform. It was my dream to join the forces. Now I feel proud.”
Jagriti, the most experienced of the three, has also served in Nagaland and along the Line of Control (LoC) at Pharkian Gali in north Kashmir, known for heavy infiltration from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Similarly, Riflewomen Sophie, who hails from Serchhip in Mizoram, and Lucy, from Churachandpur in Manipur, have served in diverse roles. Lucy and Sophie are posted with 46 Assam Rifles Batallion. Lucy, selected in 2017, said, “I took to the uniform after seeing people living close to my native place joining the forces.” Sophie had earlier served at Sadhna Pass in Tangdhar sector near the LoC. “I was told that I have to go to Kashmir along with other troops. I was happy to serve the country. Our focus was to check women suspected of smuggling goods,” she said. In fact, interceptions have revealed that 60% of the conduits are women. Women soldiers are deployed for patrol duties and also at check posts.
Assam Rifles, a paramilitary force, is administratively under the Ministry of Home Affairs and operationally under the Army. Riflewomen have played a stellar role in the short time since they were inducted into the force, said several officers to a group of print and television journalists from Delhi who visited Mizoram in March. Recoveries of narcotics and contraband have gone up significantly since riflewomen have been deployed, one officer said. The women perform all tasks and work equally with their male counterparts. Most importantly, they can check women carrying contraband, said the officer.
But while the authorised strength is 2,000 riflewomen, Assam Rifles has only 200 riflewomen. Jagriti’s battalion has 16 women soldiers. To increase recruitment, “we need more women to apply,” said another officer. To this end, in their current deployment, Lucy and Sophie are training women who come for the pre-recruitment process, organised by the Assam Rifles.
Rampant drug use
The Assam Rifles faces the twin challenges of checking smuggling and preventing illegal crossings into the State which has a porous border and also a Free Movement Regime up to 16 km for residents on both sides. It also has to oversee the much-delayed and ambitious Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project, which seeks to ease India’s access to Southeast Asia and also provide an alternate route between the landlocked Northeast and the rest of India. The project is finally nearing completion.
Drug use and smuggling remain the biggest challenges for Mizoram, which shares the longest border with Myanmar among the four north-eastern States that border the Southeast Asian neighbour.
“Narcotics is a big challenge for us,” said Brigadier Digvijay Singh, Commander 23 Sector Assam Rifles, responsible for Mizoram.“But we are doing all that is in our hands. In the three months of 2021 alone, we have recovered narcotics worth almost ₹25 crore. As Mizoram is a dry State, cheap and easy availability of drugs has a wide impact on society. Mizoram has the highest percentage of drug addicts,” he said.
According to data available with law enforcement agencies, in 2020, 21 kg of heroin and 130 kg of marijuana and Methamphetamine tablets worth ₹47 crore were found. In 2020, 190 smugglers were apprehended while over 53 were apprehended this year.
India is a prime market for illicit opiates originating in Asia. Government estimates say India witnessed a 455% increase in drug hauls between 2011 and 2020. Last year, on June 26, which is observed as International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, an annual anti-drug action plan for 2020-21 for 272 districts was launched by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. In a recent survey conducted by the Social Welfare Department, 27.8% of the total drug users in the State came from Aizawl and the least from Lawngtlai (5.9%). The most alarming fact is that most of the respondents of the survey are educated — nearly 40-45% completed middle school, 35-40% up to high school, and about 10-15% are graduates. Today, more than 200 million people are estimated to be consuming illegal drugs in India.
Also read | Drug use, smuggling major challenges in Mizoram
In Mizoram, 1,645 people have died due to drug abuse since 1984. In 2020 alone, 67 people died, and 268 people were arrested on drug-related charges. In India, about 0.7% of the population is affected by drugs. In terms of the percentage of population affected, Mizoram ranks the highest in the country. Ya ba tablets, produced in the Wa State of Myanmar and which are in high demand in Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru, are smuggled through Mizoram, local officials said.
Mizoram also acts as a conduit for transshipment of drugs to other parts of the country, Brigadier Singh said. “Assam Rifles is conducting anti-drug campaigns to create awareness about the ill-effects of drugs,” he said.
Among the States bordering Myanmar, Mizoram is a peaceful State where “the insurgency ended with the stroke of a pen in 1986” as one official put it. With the other States affected by insurgency, Mizoram is the preferred route for transit, the official said.
A major anti-drug drive was launched by Assam Rifles in cooperation with the State government and local NGOs. As part of the awareness campaign last year, Mizoram Home Minister Pu Lalchamliana inaugurated an anti-drug campaign named ‘Ruihhlo Do’, which means ‘a war against drugs’. It was organised along with 46 Assam Rifles in three phases.
Recoveries have gone up significantly in the last two years as the anti-narcotic grid has been strengthened by the deployment of women soldiers of Assam Rifles, sniffer dogs, and X-ray machines.
According to official data on recoveries in the Northeast, narcotics including Methamphetamine and Ya ba tablets worth over ₹368.19 crore were recovered last year. In addition, contraband such as gold, gems and teak worth ₹52.61 crore and other miscellaneous items including foreign currency worth ₹16.56 crore were recovered.
Apart from being an easy substitute for alcohol, drugs are very easy to be conceal and carry, said Colonel Viplav Tripathi, Commanding Officer of 46 Assam Rifles, responsible for north Mizoram. “People are doing a lot of business as a small quantity of a drug earns them big money. A Methamphetamine tablet costs around ₹10-20 in the border areas. In Aizawl, it is ₹350-500. And once it reaches mainland India for the festival season, it costs ₹2,000,” he said.
Apart from drugs, other major items smuggled include gold, wildlife, weapons, Indian currency and foreign cigarettes. Mizoram is one of the fastest growing hubs of gold smuggling from China, one officer at Aizawl said. More than 8 kg of gold was recovered in 2020, and about 70 kg that was recovered in other parts of country is believed to have gone through Mizoram, said the officer. Weapon recovery data show that in 2020, around 30 AK-47s, two Chinese pistols, one air rifle, around 600 rifle scopes and about 1.5 lakh detonators were recovered.
Mizoram has a very high literacy rate of 91.2%, but very few employment opportunities. This is another reason why people turn to smuggling, according to observers. Speaking to the media at Zorinpui near the border where the Kaladan Project enters India from Myanmar, H. Lalmuansanga, an elected member of the Lai Autonomous District Council, said this was one of the most backward districts of the country and appealed for Central government help. “The Kaladan Project is the gateway to Southeast Asia. Before the project is completed, we need to uplift the local people. The economic condition and education status here is very poor. We need the Central government to concentrate on this area. We need to boost the health system,” he said.
Joseph Lalhmingthanga, Secretary, Central Young Lai Association, echoed his views. He said that apart from more recruitment into the Assam Rifles, they also need institutions where skills development is taught and job opportunities are created for the locals. “I hope the Central government concentrates not only on international strategic policy but also on meeting local demands. Our population is very small and our needs can easily be met with a little attention,” he said.
As the long convoy of vehicles meandered its way through the hilly terrain, the road from Aizawl to Lwangtlai was black-topped and good for the most part. But the real test of our spines was from Lwangtlai to Zorinpui. A common sight as we drove across the State was of people carrying cans and drums of water to their homes. Officials said water supply is a major issue across the State.
An ambitious project
After missing a few deadlines and crossing several hurdles, India’s ambitious infrastructure project is nearing completion.
Since the February coup in which the military junta overthrew the democratically elected government and took control of Myanmar, hundreds of Myanmarese nationals including policemen crossed over into India seeking refuge. This prompted India to seal all the border points. Despite this, work was on full swing on a bridge at the border at Zorinpui, next to a bailey bridge built by the Army last year for the project.
Officials dismissed any impact of the coup on the project or any threat from the Myanmar-based insurgent group, the Arakan Army. “Of late, there has been no incident where the Arakan Army has tried to hinder the progress of the Kaladan project. The project is progressing as per the timeline. It will have a huge economic impact on society as well as in the development of south Mizoram,” said Brigadier Singh. “It is supported by the local people in Myanmar as development in Rakhine State is not great. So this road will bring a lot of prosperity and business opportunities for those people,” he said.
The project has three legs — a 539-km sea stretch from Kolkata to Sittwe in Myanmar, an inland waterway on the Kaladan river from Sittwe to Paletwa extending to 150 km, and the 110-km land route from Paletwa in Myanmar up to Zorinpui in Mizoram. There is also another 88-km road stretch from Zorinpui to Lawngtlai in Mizoram.
The private company RDS is executing the stretch from Lawngtlai till the border at Zorinpui. There is another stretch of 109 km inside Myanmar. The Ministry of External Affairs is executing the project and appointed IRCON (Indian Railway Construction Limited) to monitor the project, explained Captain Vikas Sharma near the project site at Zorinpui. IRCON floated the project and tenders were given to EPIL and C&C, a joint venture company, Captain Sharma said.
The area was named Zorinpui, which means ‘Mizoram’s greatest hope’, in 2008 when the Kaladan Project started. The place around the project site is populated by Mizo communities.
The joint venture started work in 2017 but stopped in 2019 as C&C declared bankruptcy. Subsequently the joint venture subcontracted work to another joint venture, RK-RPP, to complete the work between Kaletwa and Zorinpui.
“Five km of the road has been constructed though it is yet to be blacktopped. Jungles up to 20 km have been cleared for the road and 10 km of road has been surveyed,” said T.S. Negi, project coordinator. Negi said a major challenge is working in the jungles where there are a “lot of mosquitoes”.
“We are trying to work with everyone,” Negi said adding they have hired labour from villages on both sides of the border as they are economically backward and this is a good opportunity to take them along.
Over the years, the project has seen several interruptions including monsoons, local issues and red tape.
“There was also a break because of the pandemic. There was also some fear because of the Arakan Army but work is now progressing smoothly,” said another project official.
In early 2019, in a two-week-long coordinated operation with the Indian Army, the Myanmar Army destroyed 10-12 camps of the Arakan Army which set up camps in the Rakhine area, posing a threat to the project. In November 2019, the Arakan Army abducted five Indians from the project site, one of whom died of a heart attack while in custody.
There is no longer any threat from the Arakan Army. It too is supportive of the project as it wants development in the region, a local official said.
The project was first conceived in 2003 and an agreement was signed in 2008 at an estimated cost of ₹536 crore. The cost has since gone up to ₹3,200 crore and the deadline revised twice. It is expected to be completed by 2023.
The project, which opens an alternative route for India’s landlocked Northeast to Kolkata through Myanmar, also opens connectivity to Southeast Asia. Kaladan can be a major push to counter China’s influence in the region, another official said. As of now, the work on Sittwe seaport as well as the dredging of Kaladan port are complete. In June 2017, India handed over six cargo vessels to Myanmar. The final stretch is now the roads.
Work is being done to convert the 100-km road on National Highway to four lanes, between Zorinpui and Lawngtlai. Further on, from Lawngtlai to Aizwal, the existing 246-km National Highway 54 connects to Dabaka in Assam.
The Kaladan Project holds the promise of not only ease of movement but development too in a long-neglected State.
The correspondent’s trip was facilitated by the Assam Rifles