For Punjab's 'village of widows' the stigma is as bad as the drug epidemic

Given the magnitude of tragedy that Maqboolpura residents have witnessed, one would presume that measures would have been taken on a war-footing to alleviate the misery of people of this pocket in Amritsar. But, nothing has changed over the years, except for a slight decline in drug addiction cases, observe NGOs working on drug de-addiction programme in Punjab.

Debobrat Ghose May 03, 2014 17:40:29 IST
For Punjab's 'village of widows' the stigma is as bad as the drug epidemic

Amritsar: For Harmeet Kaur (name changed), a frail widow in her early fifties, the hope of a good life came to an end the day her husband died of cirrhosis of the liver due to heavy drinking. A few years later, she lost her eldest son at 19, who became a victim of injectable drugs. It was then that she decided to move out with her younger son and daughter from Maqboolpura to another locality in Amritsar.

"Had I stayed back, I would have lost my other two children. And, moreover the name of Maqboolpura is itself a social stigma that haunts all those who live there," she says while narrating how men in Maqboolpura fall prey to drugs and how their wives and children have to bear the brunt of living in a toxic atmosphere of poverty, drug addiction and crime.

For Punjabs village of widows the stigma is as bad as the drug epidemic

Orphans and children of drug victims in a school in Maqboolpura. Debobrat Ghose/Firstpost

She is not an example in isolation and everyone is not as fortunate as her to come out of the ‘black hole of anguish and death’. There are many like Jaswant Kaur, who lost her husband, or Naam Kaur, who lost her five sons, who continue to live a life of interminable misfortune, with their plight even making it to news headlines.

Given the magnitude of tragedy that Maqboolpura residents have witnessed, one would presume that measures would have been taken on a war-footing to alleviate the misery of people of this pocket in Amritsar. But, nothing has changed over the years, except for a slight decline in drug addiction cases, observe NGOs working on drug de-addiction programme in Punjab.

The apathy of the government and free-sale of liquor and easy availability of cheap synthetic drugs have virtually rendered Maqboolpura an ostracised society. The ostracisation of Maqboolpura is so complete that many legends have taken birth about this locality. But it is not a village as is often described in media reports, nor is it a village of only widows with no male members as head of families. Rather, it’s an impoverished neighbourhood well within the Amritsar city limits.

And it is the notoriety that Maqboolpura has earned as the 'village of widows' — due to a series of painful and premature deaths of young men by consuming alcohol and drugs — that is now hurting its residents the most, almost like a social stigma.

"Since 2010, we’ve been stigmatised due to this tag that the media has given to Maqboolpura, without even realising that one day it would be detrimental to our progress. When anyone of us from here goes to other states, people question us as if we are involved heavily into drugs and crime. Even during the ongoing election, TV channels came to project the tag of widows’ village. But nobody was bothered about the root cause of evils that we face here,” laments a government employee from the locality.

Maqboolpura, a small locality of about 25,000 residents, who settled here primarily as refugees immediately after the Partition, got branded as a ‘village of widows’ in 1999, when an English daily from Punjab did a series on severity of drug menace in the state and the locality in particular, followed by a survey done by the then senior superintendent of police Gurdev Singh Sahotra, who was known for his crackdown on drug peddlers. It was then that the world outside this small habitat came to know about Maqboolpura.

"One cannot brand Maqboolpura as a village of widows alone, as mentioned by various national and international newspapers and channels. There are other places in Punjab, where drug menace is at its nadir," says Brij Bedi, founder president of Citizens Forum Vidya Mandir. Bedi, also an industrialist, decided to work amongst the children of drug victims by imparting them education, after reading about the place in a newspaper in 1999.

Bedi is right. Whether it's Amritsar, Gurdaspur, Taran Taaran or towns and villages close to India-Pakistan border, drugs have become a scourge for the entire state. Punjab is reportedly the transit route for international drugs to Indian cities, and overseas. But it is also a nursery for crime, as young people in Punjab learn both to use and traffic drugs. In an affidavit to the High Court, the Punjab government had admitted that in two-thirds of rural Punjabi households, at least one male is addicted to drugs.

Moving around the place through its by-lanes, around the dingy houses and shanties, signs of poverty and government negligence are apparent. One can see open drains, poor infrastructure and civic amenities, children in torn clothes running on the streets and youths idling at corners waiting for a dope. Due to the poor financial condition of the addicts of this area, heroine is not on their list, as it’s virtually impossible to afford it due to exorbitant price.

The drug addicts here go for cheaper varieties like poppy husk, known locally as ‘Bhukki’, black balls of opium paste, gaanja (marijuana), synthetic drugs, cough syrups, painkillers, amphetamines, any kind of cocktail that could be fatal and even lizards’ tails. Young boys can be seen sniffing adhesives and thinners used in paints by the roadside. They don’t need any inspiration to do it. They have their fathers and elder brothers as addicts at home, whereas orphans are initiated into the dark world by drug peddlers.

At street corners, a glass of illicit country liquor brewed locally is available (Gilasi) at Rs 10 or Rs 20. If one pays more than Rs 10, a glass is served spiked with a dose of cheap synthetic drugs, that could even be crushed moth balls. “Anything and everything intoxicating is mixed with liquor and this is the cheapest stuff easily available here for doping,” a local resident says. An obvious corollary to drug addiction in Maqboolpura is the rise in crime.

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