Aizawl: A political storm is brewing in Mizoram over a recent action taken by the Champai district magistrate against smuggling of areca nuts from Myanmar.

Highly placed sources said Champhai district magistrate Maria CT Zuali, accompanied by some officials, had intercepted four trucks loaded with smuggled areca nuts near Kelkang village in Champhai district near the Myanmar border on the night of December 18 and allegedly burned 150 bags of dried areca nuts to be transported to Aizawl. 

Five trucks managed to escape getting arrest, sources said. Following the incident, an Aizawl-based areca nuts transporter named Lalhruaitluangi registered a complaint with state police against Maria CT Zuali. 

In her FIR, Lalhruaitluangi had alleged that the Champhai district magistrate along with other officials intercepted their trucks carrying areca nuts near Kelkang village on December 18.

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The district officials unloaded 150 bags of areca nuts from three trucks and burnt on the spot, the complaint further said. The District Magistrate also allegedly snatched the drivers’ mobile phones and their ignition keys. 

Lalhruaitluangi has demanded action against the district magistrate for allegedly torching their goods without first verifying whether or not they were of foreign origin, and without the permission of the owners.

This police complaint against the Champhai district magistrate has sparked anger among local traders, organisations, netizens and even opposition parties, who not only extended their solidarity but also blamed the ruling Mizo National Front (MNF) for allegedly allowing smugglers to move freely and have the courage to challenge the law.

The areca nut network

According to data available with Central Customs department, as many as 1,108.97 metric ton of areca nuts worth over Rs. 35.84 crore smuggled from Myanmar has been seized in Mizoram this year till November.

Of the 1,108.97 metric ton, 976.37 metric ton of areca nuts were seized by the Customs officials, while 132.60 metric ton was seized by other agencies, it said.

The department also registered 79 cases in connection with the smuggling of areca nuts during the same period.

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During 2020, over 1,080 metric tons of smuggled areca nuts worth Rs 33.82 crore were seized and at least 148 cases registered in connection with smuggling of areca nuts from Myanmar, the data said. 

The smuggling of dried areca nuts from Southeast Asian countries has become a matter of concern in Mizoram after local area nut growers expressed disappointment that the illegal trade greatly affected their market.

Most areca nuts and other contraband are being smuggled into India through Champhai and Lawngtlai districts in Mizoram, which share the border with Myanmar.

In 2019, the Centre had written to chief secretaries of Mizoram and Manipur to stop illegal cross-border trade. 

Following the Centre directive, Champhai district deputy commissioner Maria CT Zuali had earlier issued an order banning smuggling or import of illegal trade items from Southeast Asian countries. 

Political backlash

Congress Legislature Party (CLP) and party treasurer Zodintluanga Ralte has blamed the state government headed by Chief Minister Zoramthanga for entertaining an illegal transporter to file a complaint against the district magistrate for maintaining law and order. He alleged that the state government has completely failed to keep law and order.

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The Congress leader also feared that Mizoram will have a Mexico and Colombia-like situation where drug mafias and smugglers have not only a free hand but control the government to a great extent.

Another Congress leader Lalhriatrenga Chhangte alleged that the state government was hand-in-glove with the smugglers over transportation of areca nuts from Myanmar.

According to ZPM working president K. Sapdanga, the Champhai DC had issued prohibitory order against transportation of smuggled areca nuts through the district.

The Champhai DC has maintained that she was acting as per law. She said the areca nut bags were unloaded to check if other contrabands were concealed inside them.

She said that other contrabands, including drugs, were concealed inside areca nuts bags on several occasions by transporters.

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The recent incident coupled with a memorandum to Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking his immediate intervention to stop cross-border illegal trade has exposed widespread smuggling of dried areca nuts from Southeast Asian countries to India through Mizoram.

An official, who declined to be named, said that smuggling of areca nuts and other contraband (illegal trade items) from Southeast Asian countries especially Myanmar has been continuing for quite a long time.

Recently, a social activist sent a memorandum to both the Prime Minister and Mizoram Chief Minister, the latter had a meeting with officials here on December 14 to “find ways to stop the illicit trade”.

“However, the night after the meeting was held, transportation of smuggled areca nuts continued unabated on the national highways in Champhai, as reported in a section of media,” ZPM’s K Sapdanga said.

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Though the smuggler used to transport areca nuts on specific smuggling routes earlier,  they started transporting the illegal trade items on national highway from December 14, he added. 

The Congress and BJP have demanded the state government to take measures to ensure that areca nut is included among legal imports.

Recently, well-known social activist Vanramchhuangi wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking the Centre’s immediate intervention to stop cross-border smuggling of dried areca nuts from several southeast Asian countries through Champhai and Lawngtlai districts. 

According to Vanramchhuangi, the government of Mizoram gave ‘Place of Origin’ credentials to dried areca nut smuggled through the Indo-Myanmar border from various South East Asian countries. 

These contraband are then categorized as product under GST Heading No:0802 and levied 5% GST, she said. 

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She alleged that numerous smuggling routes were constructed by smugglers and there are 40 such roads in Champhai district alone on which smugglers used to transport their goods.

The CMO could not be contacted for comments.

Meanwhile, a senior Customs department official said that the department has been making massive efforts to curb illegal imports despite manpower crunch. 

He said the department has faced several hurdles due to manpower crunch. 

Urging the state government and other agencies to back the Customs department, the official said that the department wanted them to hand over their detainees and seized contraband to it as per law.

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