Grassroot merchants of illicit goods in Gujarat

Development Resource Center

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THERE is little systematic research on organised crime (OC), especially on the structure and functioning of the OC groups (OCGs). This is despite wide concurrence about their influence and contribution to the ‘black economy’. The few studies conducted at the initiative of the Finance and Home Ministries for the purpose of introducing tax reforms, enhancing revenue collection or for combating militants in insurgency affected regions, are not in the public domain.

This study documents the operations of grassroot level merchants of illicit goods in Gujarat. It covers some aspects of the life and work of members of the organised crime groups (OCGs) by looking at their entry into the world of crime, intra-group relations including maintenance of discipline, financing, relations with the police and politicians, use of profits and exit from crime.

In addition to interviews to collect data from the persons involved in trade in illicit goods, a diary was maintained to record relevant information that cropped up during or after the interviews in each area. We did not use police case files. In all, seven persons from Junagadh, nine from Ahmedabad and 15 from Porbunder were interviewed. Responses were written in Gujarati and then translated into English.

The characteristics of the chosen merchants vary considerably. The interviewees were from different religious backgrounds – Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs; both male and female; illiterates and those educated upto the 12th class. Their age ranged from 24 to 64, and the number of years in the trade from 2 to 26. People dealing exclusively in country liquor, IMFL, cannabis products, opium and heroin, and armaments were interviewed. Two respondents were also involved in trafficking women.

The following overview of the drug situation in Gujarat is based on articles which appeared in Abhiyan and Chitralekha magazines in the last 10 years, annual reports of the Narcotics Control Bureau of India 1992-1999, and interviews with four key informants.

Gujarat is one of the four states in western India which have significantly contributed to drug trafficking, according to the reports of the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) of India. It is well known that southern African countries receive methaqualone (mandrax) tablets from India, specifically Maharashtra and Gujarat. Delhi and Tamilnadu are the two other states where major seizures of mandrax tablets have been made in the past decade. Gujarat produces 40% of the pharmaceutical drugs in the country. Many factories have either closed down or declared sick in recent years. Four mandrax producing factories were dismantled between 1994 and 1996 in Gujarat.

Seizures of mandrax often run into tonnes, not kilos and grams. In 1994, the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) seized a car with 167 kgs of mandrax and a further 1545 kilograms in the follow up action. In Jamnagar, the DRI seized 5.225 metric tonnes of mandrax tablets and 121 kilos of powder. Large quantities of charas (hashish) have been seized in various parts of Gujarat. Brown sugar (crude heroin) has been recovered in smaller quantities in Ahmedabad and other parts of Gujarat (Annual Reports 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, Narcotics Control Bureau, New Delhi).



Junagadh district: Fishing and repair of launches are important economic activities in the district. There are several migrants employed in sorting, cleaning, packing and transporting fish. Opium, ganja, charas, alcohol and brown sugar are widely used, though migrant labourers seem to prefer brown sugar that reportedly comes from Pakistan and Afghanistan. Rajasthan is the main source for opium.

Consumption of opium is common, part of the custom and tradition of many castes and communities. In the evenings men gather to drink opium liquid (this practice is locally called dira or dairo and the liquid is called kasumba). It is consumed both on joyous occasions such as marriages, visit of a guest, holi and also to overcome grief. Some castes follow a pernicious practice of giving a packet of 50-100 grams of opium to the daughter at the time of her wedding. Gujaratis call it Vakghodiou. It is expected that if the marriage breaks down the girl should not return to her parents house, but consume that opium and die.

Junagadh district has a significant presence of tantriks, sadhus and rishis (Hindu monks or priests) who regularly consume ganja and charas. They also give their followers potions made out of cannabis leaves and flowers as prasad. The sadhus who smoked ganja in our presence affirmed the production of cannabis. The quality of ganja from Junagadh is famous. Tantriks living in Gir forest cultivate it for their own use, but others also plant and harvest it. It is claimed that the local cannabis plant is not used for extracting charas which is brought in from Rajasthan, Kutch and Ahmedabad.

Since the entire state is under alcohol prohibition the demand is usually met through organised crime groups (OCGs). IMFL is purchased from Diu – a small enclave in Gujarat and a former Portuguese colony that is close to Junagadh district. The special reserve police, air force, navy, and military units (at Jamnagar, Porbunder, Verawal) get their quota of liquor from the government. Not surprisingly, some of it finds its way to the public.



Porbunder district: Smuggling is a hereditary occupation among a few caste groups. The range of smuggled goods is vast, from country liquor to heroin, from a Swiss knife to AK47 rifles. Many of the gangs have entered politics. As Porbunder is situated along the sea shore, smuggling is easy.

Demographic data: The age of the respondents ranged from 25 to 64 years; nearly 50% were in the age group of 35-44 years. We managed to interview only four women merchants. Overall we interviewed 11 Muslims, one Sikh and 19 Hindus from various caste groups. Six percent had completed schooling upto 12 years; 57% had studied upto high school; 20% had studied for five years, while the remainder were illiterate.

Some entered the trade in illicit goods because it was their forefather’s hereditary occupation. Most of them began at an early age of 9-10 years. One of them said, ‘I have never thought of this work as a criminal activity.’ For others, smuggling was an adjunct of their main activity. One was an auto rickshaw driver. A passenger asked him to deliver a can of liquor. Another customer asked to be taken to a charas joint. It is normal for tourists in Gujarat to ask auto drivers for help in getting alcohol. The customers tip the drivers well and so this becomes a part of their job. Another worked as a room boy at a lodge and routinely procured liquor for the customers. Soon it became a full time occupation. A third worked as a loader in a boat, which often carried contraband items, fetching him an extra income. Another started off with a person making country liquor on a daily salary of Rs 25; after learning the trade, he now runs his own business.



Many of our respondents lived and conducted business in the same localities, indicating a level of community acceptance. In most instances one can surmise that the relational network or peer group had a role in initiating the youth into criminal trades. Drug pushers and peddlers too made use of unemployed, desperate boys and women. This was largely true for petty vendors at the grassroots level.

What do they sell? Ten of the respondents dealt only in charas and ganja, four only in opium, eight exclusively in country liquor, three sold Indian made foreign liquor (IMFL); one sold both IMFL and country liquor, one sold brown sugar and opium. But there were four who dealt in all contraband items, which in effect meant any combination of the following: brown sugar, opium, charas, ganja, guns, RDX, girls, sex pills and pornographic literature/films. On the whole, 23 were in single substance while the other eight dealt with multiple substances.

The number of people dealing with substances other than alcohol (country or IMFL or both) was 18. Thirteen among them were only retail suppliers and 18 wholesale suppliers (nine of them also operated at the middle and retail levels). Thirteen reported that they had less than 20 clients, while three had more than 20 clients. Sixteen of them had facilities to store their goods outside their homes.

Most of them (24) did not borrow money to finance their work; five had fixed financiers; two took loans when orders were large and cash was needed immediately. Barring 10 of the respondents, the rest did not use intermediaries in their work. It is significant that eight of them procured goods from Pakistan and Afghanistan while two smuggled goods into Pakistan. The stuff brought from Pakistan/Afghanistan was brown sugar, arms, charas and opium. According to one respondent, sale of cartridges was tied to the purchase of opium, charas and other drugs on the Pakistani side.



Eight of them bought their maal (goods) from Pakistan and or Afghanistan. This involved transporting goods to or from these destinations. All modes of transport were used for the purpose: private vehicles (tempos, trucks, auto rickshaws, tourist buses), public transport (railways and state transport corporation buses), boats and personal couriers. Whereas 10 merchants only admitted to acting as landing agents, one used boats for transporting, i.e. some of them had moved in the direction of vertical integration of their operations.

Staffing and staff relations: In their last recorded trafficking activity, six of them employed only family members. Ten merchants employed less than five workers. Only in one case was the operation a one-man show. Eight said that they hired people only for the duration of the task. Nineteen operators had permanent workers.

Problems faced by them in their business: While 21 of the respondents said they faced no problems, the other 10 highlighted shortage of jaggery in the market to make country liquor, nuisance of elections, posting of new officers, fear of police raids, risk of contraband being caught in transit and court cases. Only one mentioned the narcotics department as a source of irritation.



We now describe how they run their business. Our field diary has the following note on the behaviour of a liquor shop boss in Junagadh: ‘The boss does not sit with his workers at the place of vending, but some distance away. Workers sell, collect the money and keep it. The boss never touches the money. At the close of business, the workers count the number of pouches/bottles, account for the incidental expenses of the day (cost of delivery, tea or food expenses, obtaining the stuff if it runs out) and hand over the balance to the boss who never counts it. He displays trust and only hires people in whom he has implicit faith. During work hours he rarely talks, though he may sit for hours in the vicinity. At best, he may offer tea to the odd person. In our Bombay interviews we discovered that traffickers seldom talk about their business even with family members. They are pretty much loners. Keeping details of business private is a protective measure.

Goods are manufactured in remote and hidden places. Two of the dealers subcontracted the risky task of transportation. Most peddlers of drugs, other than alcohol, use a front: a tea stall, travel agency office, a paan and cigarette vendor; a video parlour; vegetable shop – combining their ‘shady’ business with legal activities. Most of the liquor vends employ anywhere from 4 to 10 workers, some of whom act as bouncers and lookouts. Each of these liquor outlets, on an average, serve around 100 customers daily. Only known people or people brought by known contacts are entertained. Hotel boys supply customers in their lodges. Whether dealing in charas, ganja, opium or liquor or other drugs, these outlets are open from 10 am to 11 pm. It is interesting that in Porbunder, people dealing in alcohol do not bother to hide anything. Even if the police show up, they are sociable with one and all. That the police takes hafta (corruption money) is no secret.

‘The police also have to please their bosses; so every now and then we allow them to seize our stuff. Such raids are useful in more ways than one. If the police raids us, we sit with them and come to a settlement.’ This implies that money is exchanged for the specific seizure/case with all concerned, in addition to the regular hafta. ‘Sometimes we manage to retrieve a part of the seized goods through such settlements; sometimes we get our colleagues released or substituted with someone willing to take the rap.’



Satisfying the needs of the police involves many arrangements including supply of alcohol or even commercial sex workers on a regular basis. A Bombay based Gujarati businessman with whom we discussed our study said that he regularly supplied six cartons of good whisky (72 bottles) to his uncle in Gujarat for distribution among customs, police and other government officials. When asked why he did so from Bombay when there is no dearth of liquor in Gujarat, he said, ‘I cannot trust the quality there. In Gujarat, you do not get IMFL in glass bottles, but in plastic ones. Some unscrupulous fellows heat a syringe and take out the whisky and adulterates it with water. I buy authentic stuff wholesale from a well established shop here.’ However, most merchants we interviewed said that it was part of their business ethic to sell good stuff. Those who made liquor claim to sample the drink first for quality. This is not entirely true because hooch tragedies occur regularly not only in ‘dry’ Gujarat but also in ‘wet’ states like Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh.



The most important element in safeguarding one’s business appears to be establishing a name by use of muscle or money power. Our interviewees indicated the following strategies:

A) Giving hafta to the police (10), satisfying their needs (3), occasionally allowing them to seize goods (2), making a settlement with the police when the maal is caught (7).

B) Keeping business secret from the police and doing their work without anyone’s knowledge (2), manufacturing in completely isolated places (1), and hiding the maal carefully (2).

C) Establishing one’s name in the territory and controlling it (13), using muscle power (1), maintaining a strong gang (1), changing workers during a raid (1), and satisfying the needs of the customers to prevent squealing (3).

D) Subcontracting transportation to other groups (2).

Only known people or those with proper references are hired; some look for muscle power, daring qualities; some check out for police records, employing only those with a criminal record. Such data is provided by the police. Bailing out workers from custody, changing workers during a raid, are common ways of maintaining worker loyalty. They also participate on special occasions with the families of the workers. Maintaining workforce discipline is an important element in protecting the business.



What do they do with their profits? Five of the respondents were integrating their process vertically by acquiring transport vehicles. Four were enlarging their current business. Twelve attempted diversification by entering into moneylending or expanding agricultural operations. But most invested their profits in building up assets – purchasing land, houses or gold or simply placing their money in the bank.

In this paper we have analysed data obtained from 31 grassroots merchants of illicit goods. Our findings revealed that organized criminal smuggling in Gujarat is a dispersed, feudally managed process. We found no evidence of syndication or emergence of oligopolistic gangs. There was no evidence of religious or caste loyalty. People from all religions and caste groups were involved in smuggling; they also diversify and add on profitable goods to their list of items. There was clear evidence of support, active or passive, from politicians and the police. Our respondents tried to build up a facade of respectability by visiting shrines and feeding the poor.

Despite, or maybe because of, a complete ban on the trading of alcohol and drugs in Gujarat, smuggling is widespread. It is our contention that the social integration of smuggling in society cannot occur without a clear connivance of the police, politicians and other power elites.


* This study was carried out by Garbiel Britto, Molly Charles and Bhaskar Jani.