Ricky Kharnaior has on a number of occasions stolen from his mother’s purse.
“Don’t tell anyone, ok!” he says, slyly, as he puffs on a cigarette.
It makes him feel awful and he claims that he promises himself that every time he manages to steal a few hundred rupees, it would be his last.
“Twenty seven different times in the past year I’ve done it!”
“That’s a rather exact number.”
“It kills a part of me every single time,” Ricky says without much emotion though, like he was saying it more for the benefit of the listener. Ricky is addicted to heroin, which he says he needs up to three times a day. Ricky and the friends in his circle spend more money than any of them make to quench a habit which was never a problem till only a few years ago.
Drug addiction in Shillong and different parts of the state among young men is a growing problem that could mirror Manipur of the 90s, or worse the Punjab of the present day. Shillong, the capital of the north-east Indian state of Meghalaya, for a city of its size, punches above its weight in ways other towns and cities — bigger and more populated than it — don’t. Per capita, if I were to venture a well-thought out guess, it probably has more pianos in its living rooms than any other South Asian town. It definitely must have guitars.
Plagued by years of lethargy and angst borne out of simmering underground militancy, the past few years have seen it come out of its shell and try and assert its name and presence on the national stage. The city is made of its musicians and choirs bearing variations of the city’s name, its footballers, tiny local football teams with bare minimum funding and resources who manage to compete at the highest national levels overnight, and the hordes of young college students who venture into the different parts of the country to work and study, and the entrepreneurs who are building the city.
The past ten years has seen the city improve in the education and healthcare sector. Hospitals, universities and institutions of national recognition and prominence have been set up, and stable improvement has already been established. Of course, issues of income-inequality, poor access to education for the weakest segments of the population persist, and solutions must be sought for these problems, sooner rather than later. For a city in progress — a developing town in a developing part of the world — it’s has not been doing too shabbily.
But something changed in the past year or so.
A emerging disturbing trend, that could stall the city in its tracks and wreck an entire generation, is that of drug use. While alcohol has always been part of Shillong, and a vital cog of Khasi indigenous culture, and while it has been responsible for the alcoholism that is rife in Shillong and Khasi communities, it does not scare the collective consciousness the way the drug usage and addiction phenomenon does.
Pick up a newspaper and read reports of drug transactions gone wrong. Watch the local cable news and there is more of the same. As a result, local and neighbourhood community watches have propped up around the city as a measure of preventing young boys from assembling in dimly lit corners past a cut-off time. "Alcoholism does not scare families the way drug addiction does," Bah Marwein, a father of four says as he sips red tea on a rather warm night during his community watch in the middle class neighbourhood of Bishop Falls, Lower Mawprem. "It’s because it so new and foreign to us, you know what I mean?..You’d hear or know of the odd person who became addicted to drugs, and it was always a habit they picked up outside Shillong and anywhere else but here,” said Marwein. A fellow community watcher said, "But now overnight in our town, it has managed to strangle our young without warning."
The problem, though, had been knocking on the city’s doors for a while. Unchecked migration and the illegal paraphernalia brings with it, a stagnant economy that is too dependent on the government and public sector. Dwindling resources and avenues for recreation are just some of the factors that have played a role in the drug problem that now Shillong finds itself embroiled in.