Guest Column

Boom in Betel Nut Smuggling From Myanmar to India

By Rajeev Bhattacharyya 11 January 2022

India is struggling to stop the smuggling of areca nut – better known as betel nut – from Myanmar following a directive from the central government in New Delhi.

The illicit trade is booming in northeast India, with betel nut mainly smuggled into the states of Mizoram and Manipur, both of which border western Myanmar. The contraband betel nut is then distributed across India, where almost 10 per cent of the population use the addictive nut, which has similar properties to nicotine.

“We are putting in all efforts to check the smuggling after the instruction received from the central government.  Some results have been achieved but the task is extremely challenging,” Maria C T Zuali, the deputy commissioner of Champhai, a frontier district in Mizoram State, told The Irrawaddy.

Champhai is one of three districts along the 1,643 kilometre-long India-Myanmar border that are considered to be smuggling hotspots. The other two are Chandel and Tengnoupal in Manipur State.

Government officials in Mizoram and Manipur have gone into overdrive to check the illegal imports of betel nut by engaging the state police in the exercise. The Assam Rifles, which is mandated by the government to police the India-Myanmar border, does not have the resources to plug all the illicit entry points where betel nut and other contraband items such as narcotics and gold are smuggled into India.

The presence of the Assam Rifles is almost “non-existent” along the border in Mizoram, a government official said, since it is a regarded as a peaceful state in India’s northeast, unlike Manipur and Nagaland which are afflicted by insurgency.

“The Assam Rifles and customs have been requested to upgrade their infrastructure in Mizoram if the smuggling is to stop,” said one official who did not wish to be named. He added that a large amount of areca nut is still being illicitly imported despite continuous seizures by different government agencies.

Some 1,108.97 metric tons of betel nut smuggled from Myanmar and worth over 358 million Indian rupees (8.5 billion kyats) was confiscated last year up to November in Mizoram, according to media reports. 976.37 metric tons were seized by India’s customs, while 132.60 metric tons were seized by other agencies. As many as 79 betel nut smuggling cases were registered with the authorities during the same period.

India has allowed the tariff-free import of betel nut from Myanmar since the two countries signed a preferential trade agreement in 1994. However, a 40 per cent tariff on the nut began to be levied in 2018 as India’s government suspected that areca nut from Indonesia was being imported via Myanmar.

Vehicles were also barred from crossing into India at the two official border crossings of Rihkhawdar in Chin State and Tamu in Sagaing Region. But the smuggling has continued, with seizures revealing that the smuggling route through Mizoram is more active than the ones in Manipur.

Officials across all departments believe that the illicit trade thrives due to the huge demand for betel nut in the country and is facilitated by corrupt officials and politicians.

In one bizarre incident in December 2021, smugglers lodged an FIR (First Information Report) with the Mizoram Police against the Champhai deputy commissioner after four trucks were intercepted carrying betel nut from the border.

The trucks were likely headed to Silchar in neighbouring Assam State where illegal syndicates dispatch the nut to different destinations around the country. Seizures of smuggled betel nut have also been made elsewhere in India, including one 2016 case where 23 railway wagons loaded with areca nut were seized by railway authorities in the west-central state of Maharastra after being reportedly loaded at a station in India’s eastern region.

There is huge demand for betel nut in India. As well as being chewed, it is a key ingredient in different kinds of smokeless tobacco preparations. The Global Adult Tobacco Survey India Report (2016-17) stated that 8% of India’s population uses betel nut.

India’s Central Bureau of Investigation registered a case last year following an order from the Bombay High Court after public interest litigation was submitted alleging that substandard betel nut was being smuggled into the country with the connivance of custom officials.

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