In September, 3,000 kg of drugs were seized at Mundra Port in Gujarat and tracked to Aashi Trading Company, which is registered at an address in a middle-class locality in Vijayawada. Appaji Reddem reports on the ongoing investigation of one of the biggest drug hauls of the country
All eyes on Vijayawada
It all began on September 15 when, thanks to a tip-off, the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) seized the contraband estimated to be worth over ₹21,000 crore at Mundra Port in Kutch. The port is run by Adani Ports and SEZ (APSEZ), the ports business under the Gautam Adani-run conglomerate. The consignment was declared as ‘semi-processed talc stones’ from Afghanistan. On opening it, the officials found that it was, in fact, heroin. It had been exported in the garb of talcum powder from Hassan Hussain Limited in Kandahar and shipped from Bandar Abbas Port in Iran to Mundra Port. It was headed to Delhi, according to the police. Since investigations began, 10 people — six Afghan nationals, one Uzbek national and three Indian nationals — have been arrested. But what came as the biggest surprise during the investigation was that this consignment was being imported by a company in Vijayawada run by a Chennai-based couple. The residents of Satyanarayanapuram are dismayed to find their locality in the news for all the wrong reasons.
Amid the immediate political blame game that began after this discovery, as well as some media reports connecting the seizure to the city’s who’s who, Vijayawada Police Commissioner B. Srinivasulu sought to cushion Vijayawada from any adverse impact following the disclosure when he stated in a press release that the consignment was not meant for the city. “Heroin worth thousands of crores of rupees seized at Mundra port, Gujarat, was smuggled from Afghanistan. On verification by concerned investigating agencies, it is learnt that one Govindaraju Durga Purna Vaishali, resident of Chennai, has taken GST registration in August 2020 on the address at D. No. 23-14-16, Satyanarayanapuram, Gadiyaramvari Street, Vijayawada,” Srinivasulu said.
The Commissioner also said that Vaishali, wife of the Chennai-based Machavaram Sudhakar, had registered the trading company and obtained an Importer-Exporter Code from the Directorate General of Foreign Trade (DGFT) with the address last August. The couple has been staying in Chennai for many years. “No activity related to the import, except the use of the address, has come to our notice. The racket has no link to Andhra Pradesh and further probe is on,” Srinivasulu said.
The couple is being questioned by the DRI and other anti-drug trafficking agencies. Sudhakar and Vaishali were taken into custody by the DRI team from the Govardhan Giri apartments in Kolapakkam, 20 km off Chennai, a few days after the seizure. After an extended remand, the couple were sent to Palara jail by a special Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) court. The authorities have cordoned off the house where the couple lived as tenants with their two young children.
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A shocked neighbourhood
More than a month later, on October 19, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) obtained custody of the accused, along with one Rajkumar, for 10 days in connection with the heroin import case. Rajkumar is believed to have coordinated the drug transport and other related business deals abroad. According to the police, the NIA is investigating how Aashi Trading Company was used as a front for importing drugs and how the proceeds are being used to support terror activities in the country.
The NIA visited the Aashi Trading Company building in Vijayawada on October 9 and conducted an extensive search, according to neighbours living in the area. Vijayawada is a busy railway junction. News of the address being linked to a drug haul has left the residents shaken. Sagar (name changed), a government employee and a cousin of Vaishali, seemed to be in shock. Sagar lives in the same house that the officials barged into, as the property was inherited by both the families.
The building spread over about 200 yards is painted sandalwood yellow. It consists of two portions and the company is housed in one of them. The east-facing house on the narrow street is equipped with two air conditioning units and has one single room on the terrace which can be reached through a structured staircase.
“Who knew that Aashi Trading was a company trading drugs,” asked Sagar. “As far as I know, Sudhakar was involved in some solar panels-related business. I don’t know anything beyond that. I was in office when the DRI officials came to our place. My wife called me to say that some GST officials had come for some information. When I reached home, I realised that it was the DRI. They wanted to break open the other portion of my cousin’s place to carry out further investigations. They took the permission letter through WhatsApp from Vaishali’s brother who lives in Hyderabad. They searched the place and took some general information from us.”
The trail of the drug racket leading to the locality was equally astonishing for neighbours who have been sharing a common wall with this building for 40-50 years. Senior railway employee A. Sridhar, who lives on the southern side of the house, said it is the biggest and strangest news that he has heard in the past four decades. “This colony is known for traditional families and most of them work in the government and in private firms. We hadn’t even noticed the company name on the house till this news was published in the media. In fact, they are very simple people. Sudhakar is a native of Kakinada in East Godavari district. He is a very hard-working man and came up on his own. Vaishali is known to be a very devotional lady. We used to see her performing daily rituals. The couple shifted to Chennai after marriage. We were told that Sudhakar has taken an import and export licence and started some business, but I know nothing about the nature of the business. In my opinion, they are very nice people and someone might have trapped them into this trade,” he said.
What did Sudhakar do for a living?
The family members in the house seemed unaware of the story behind the company name board on the house and their immediate cousins’ connection to the drug trade. The haul and the lead to an address far away from the port seems to be emblematic of how global drug trade operates: low-profile importers are often used as big names or foreign nationals may raise suspicion. The investigating agencies are now probing every suspicious activity associated with the company, the people behind it, the location of the firm, the online and social media footprint of the couple, among other aspects.
The company, investigators found, was first registered in the house address of Taraka, Sudhakar’s mother-in-law. Sources said that the proprietary firm was registered a year ago with the address in Vijayawada, while the couple has been living in Chennai for the past eight years.
Though no conclusion can be drawn, a study of the company shows that there is mystery surrounding its intended business activity. While the company is said to have imported 3,000 kg of heroin in the guise of talcum powder, the official and unofficial business activity of Aashi is different according to online and offline records. The online Indian Yellow Pages state that the business activity of Aashi Trading Company involves fruits, vegetables, cereals, foodgrains and rice. But Sagar said that the accused used to import solar panels. “Through conversations we had with him, we learned that the couple used to import and sell solar panels. But we never saw any product coming into this house,” he said.
The Company and its GST number are printed on an A4 sheet on a wall in the house. | Photo Credit: GIRI K.V.S.
According to Sudhakar’s close relatives, he left his job a couple of years ago and was on his own and living in Chennai. “The last time I saw him was a month ago when the couple came from Chennai to attend a marriage in the family in Vijayawada, in the same house,” Sagar said.
Even close relatives do not seem to know much about what Sudhakar did before marriage. “Two years after marriage, he joined a Chennai-based steel sheet-making company. Before marriage, he was with a company in Vizag. Someone told me that he was also with a company in Kolkata,” said a close relative. The statements from relatives indicate that they were clueless about what Sudhakar did for a living.
Sudhakar has three Facebook accounts which show that he was working for a public company involved in logistics. In two of these accounts, his location reads Chennai and Kakinada.
There were also reports about a couple of businesses that Sudhakar ventured into, but all of them are unconfirmed. Reports, again unconfirmed, also state that the couple has a two-wheeler and a car.
Authorities said that the entities involved are making use of technology and shell firms to remain undetected. Top officials of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) said that the company’s address in Vijayawada was perhaps intended to divert the attention of the authorities from another location for the transport and distribution of the contraband. Official sources said that in most cases, these gangs make sure that the carrier is unaware of the contents of the package while smuggling the banned material. In some cases, gullible people fall into the trap for financial benefit. With the demand for drugs escalating in high-profile circles, the gangs are getting more innovative and organised, they said.
The seizure of heroin at the Mundra Port is unquestionably significant, but there have been many instances of seizures of smaller quantities in the recent past. In a landmark seizure in May 2019, the DRI and the Indian Coast Guard together seized over 200 kg of heroin from fishing vessels along the Gujarat coast. In the last few years, the Gujarat Coast has become the preferred route for smuggling of drugs from Pakistan, Afghanistan or Iran.
Recently, the Gujarat Anti-Terrorist Squad arrested six persons and seized 144 kg of heroin worth ₹700 crore. The drug consignment was apparently sent from Pakistan and delivered mid sea off the Gujarat coast. In April this year, eight Pakistan nationals onboard a boat were apprehended with heroin worth about ₹150 crore off the Gujarat coast in the Arabian Sea. A mid-sea operation was commissioned with two high-speed boats and an aircraft of the Indian Coast Guard. Six Pakistani nationals were arrested in the operation. In 2019-20, the DRI seized 72 lots of narcotic drugs and psychotrophic substances covered under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, across the country. Most of the drug consignments appear to originate in Pakistan, officials said.
This apart, courier and postal cargo have become the most frequent modes of transportation of drugs by traffickers as these ensure anonymity. In a recent case, officers of the DRI, Chennai, intercepted a consignment of Alprazolam tablets, a psychotropic substance, which was on its way to the U.S. in the guise of herbal and Ayurvedic medicines. About 90 kg of tablets numbering 1,37,665 were located. The DRI’s investigations led it to an international call centre in Jaipur which was run by one of the accused who took orders from customers in the U.S.
Given the gravity of the situation, there are regular training sessions for the police and other anti-drug trafficking agencies. The Hyderabad-based Centre for Human Security Studies which (CHSS) said there needs to be coordination and cooperation between several agencies to effectively tackle the menace. Founder and Executive Director of CHSS, K. Ramesh Babu, said India needs to invest heavily in container scanners and strategically deploy them in the 18 major ports and a few important minor ports of India through which the containers come in. “The Israeli and UAE security models are noteworthy here. We need to strengthen the hands of the Central Industrial Security Force and the paramilitary forces of the country with AI-enabled software and tech gadgets,” Ramesh said. The CHSS is planning to organise workshops in collaboration with the Andhra Pradesh Police on drug trafficking and narco-terrorism, body concealment of narcotic drugs and evacuation, etc. shortly.
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Following allegations by the ruling YSR Congress and the Opposition Telugu Desam Party that the political class was involved in the trade, the Director General of Police Gautam Sawang has sought to clarify multiple times that there was no truth in these allegations. “The accused used a Vijayawada address. There is no drug trafficking in the State,” he said while also appealing to political leaders not to create panic with false information and campaigns.
The NIA, which is now investigating the case, said it plans to approach the authorities in Iran to determine the identities of those who helped the syndicate ship the consignment through the Bandar Abbas port.
Meanwhile, given the embarassment brought to it by the seizure, the Gujarat-based Adani Group, which operates ports across the country, announced that it will not handle Exim containerised cargo originating from Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan from November 15. “This trade advisory will apply to all terminals operated by APSEZ and including third party terminals at any APSEZ port till further notice,” a trade advisory issued to customers read.
With inputs from Mahesh Langa in Gujarat and Devesh K. Pandey in Delhi
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