“Throughout the border state of Punjab, whether in villages or cities, drugs have become a scourge,” noted a New York Times report in April 2012. “Opium is prevalent, refined as heroin or other illegal substances. Schoolboys sometimes eat small black balls of opium paste, with tea, before classes. Synthetic drugs are popular among those too poor to afford heroin.”
And although the New York Times said it was impossible to quantify the precise scale of the problem of drug abuse in Punjab, it acknowledged that it was “undeniably immense and worrisome.”
But a submission by the Punjab government before the Punjab and Haryana High Court in 2009 noted that “a staggering 75 percent of Punjab’s youth” was hooked on drug abuse, Tehelka magazine reported, also in April. “Every kind of drug is readily available here. From smack, heroin and synthetic drugs to over-the-counter drugs…” it added.
What accounts for Punjab’s epidemic of drug abuse, which is even worse than in some of the north-eastern States in India? According to some accounts, Punjab’s drug abuse problem began with the decline of terrorism, but has acquired an epidemic status in recent times.
As far back as in 2005, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) had noted that Punjab had emerged as a major transit route for opium from Afghanistan that eventually wound its way to markets in Europe. In recent years, the seizure of heroin by Border Security Force officials too has spiked abnormally.
Smoke signals that indicate high drug use were apparent in other areas too. Indicatively, Chief Election Commissioner SY Quaraishi had pointed to a unique problem in Punjab at election time. “We’ve encountered the problem of liquor during elections in almost all states,” he had told reporters. “But drug abuse is unique only to Punjab. This is really of concern.”
In January 2011, Outlook magazine quoted Ravneet Bittu, Congress MP from Anandpur Sahib (and the grandson of former Chief Minister Beant Singh, who was assassinated by terrorists), as saying that IAS and police officers in Punjab who had made “huge fortunes during the terrorism years, when they exercised unprecedented power across the state,” got into the drug trade business “to maintain their lavish lifestyles. According to Bittu, many bureaucrats operate drug franchises for distribution, but remain out of reach of the law.
The multimillion drug operations go on right under the nose of the Border Security Force, the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, the Narcotics Control Bureau and the Intelligence Bureau, notes this video. The scenario in Punjab is so bad — and is worsening at an alarming rate — that experts have already put an “expiry date” on the State, it observes.
Where does the demand for these drugs come from? New affluence in Punjab and the absence of economic opportunities for the young have added to the deadly cocktail of drug abuse, Tehelka noted. The prosperity that came to Punjab with the Green Revolution has also spawned a generation of educated and semi-educated youth who are “no longer interested in tilling the land or going back to the old ways of their fathers. But there are no other jobs to absorb them.”
The disturbing thing about the drug abuse problem in Punjab, it added, is that neither wealth nor caste makes a difference. “Drugs have become the great leveller in Punjab.”
So, perhaps just this once, Rahul Gandhi may not have been “so dumb” when he highlighted the extent of drug abuse problem among Punjab’s youth. In fact, going by the response to his comments, it is abundantly clear that by amplifying something that was evidently not widely known outside of Punjab, he may have served to raise greater awareness about what is manifestly a crisis in Punjab, which is at risk of losing an entire generation to drugs. Given Punjab’s status as a border State and as India’s granary, the issue has enormous consequences for India’s national security and food security
Rahul Gandhi frequently gets a lot of well-deserved criticism for his kneejerk resort to political populism and pandering to caste identities, his failure to articulate a grand vision, and his gaffes. But just this once, he perhaps deserves some credit for elevating the discourse on a grave crisis in Punjab.