Snake venom is fast evolving as a substitute for cocaine, heroin and other lethal drugs.
Gangs of snake charmers are doubling up as drug peddlers catering to the ever-growing demand for the prized commodity in the black market. And not surprisingly, cobra venom is the most sought after. The syndicate spanning across several states involves people who catch the snake, those who extract the venom and then those who market it.
Such is the nature of the clandestine operation of the syndicate that they not only keep changing their locations but also entertain only those coming through their old customers. After several abortive attempts, Zee Purvaiya, a sister concern of dna, managed to make a dent in the highly secretive syndicate. A deal was struck and the meeting point arranged in the heart of Patna in the Hartali Mor area. After talking to a person on one of the numerous numbers used by the syndicate, a meeting was arranged just in front of the Hanuman temple in the area.
The snake charmer, who identified himself as Viru, took the Zee Purvaiya team to a desolate stretch after ascertaining the credentials of the team members and cross-checking with the contacts they used to reach the gang. Two people waiting at the spot showed a 5ml vial containing "freshly procured cobra venom".
He demanded Rs11,000 but finally settled for Rs10,000. When the Zee Purvaiya team questioned the quality of the venom, one of men brought out a King Cobra from inside a jute bag kept under a tree. Another pressed its fangs against a glass container. A drop trickled down, along with some blood. "If you are not careful with this, you will end up killing yourself," Viru said.
So, how is it taken?
"Pour a drop of this venom in a glass of water and drink it within five seconds. We have some clients who even use it with bread during breakfast," another person said.
The group moves in packs and scales the hilly tracts in eastern Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand to get the deadly snakes. The prized catch is used for shows by snake charmers and it's venom sold to customers.
"Why do people buy venom?"
"Nashe ke liye... jawan baccha sab zyada kharidte hain aajkal (to get a high... the demand is maximum from youngsters these days)," Viru said.
The group, originally from Kanpur, stays for three months in Patna and adjoining areas. They are on the move constantly and have in the past gone for home deliveries up to Darbhanga and even parts of West Bengal.
The snake charmer kept hammering the point that the vial he offered us contained the purest cobra venom and it was hot in demand. "Iske liye to dur dur se log aate hain... aapko mil gaya kishmat samjho (people come from far-off places for this. Consider yourself lucky that you got it)," he said.
When the team approached the police, they feigned ignorance. City SP Jayant Kant, however, showed a keen interest in the matter and promised prompt action.
So, what do doctors say?
Dr Harish Shetty, senior psychiatrist at Mumbai's Dr LH Hiranandani hospital, said: "Getting snake bite is an old thrill. Most of the snakes used in such a thing is non-poisonous. Using cobra venom and its effects on the body, however, needs to be studied."
Dr Anil Ballani, physician at Mumbai's Lilavati hospital, said: "Venom is not easily found in market... It is only available in government hospitals. A little quantity (half an ampoule) a day taken to get a high is not harmful."
—(With inputs from Anand Amritraj who conducted a sting operation for Zee Purvaiya, a sister concern of dna)