Political parties use drug menace in Punjab as perennial election fodder, but none have any solution to offer

Punjab has been plagued by a drug menace for years, with political parties bringing up the problem at every election rally but with no solutions.

Editor's Note: A network of 60 reporters set off across India to test the idea of development as it is experienced on the ground. Their brief: Use your mobile phone to record the impact of 120 key policy decisions on everyday life; what works, what doesn't and why; what can be done better and what should be done differently. Their findings — straight and raw from the ground — will be combined in this series, Elections on the Go, over a course of 100 days.

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Moga, Faridkot: Sitting on her bed in a small room of her decrepit house in Moga district's Daulewala village in Punjab, Baljit Kaur (name changed) sheds silent tears. The reason: her 21-year-old daughter became a drug addict and is now undergoing treatment at a rehabilitation centre. What worries Baljit is not the addiction alone but the stigma that she and her husband will have to carry even if their daughter recovers.

Heroin addiction is generally perceived as a problem that plagues urban areas, but the scenario in Punjab is quite the opposite — most heroin addicts are from rural areas. Also, the problem of drug addiction in the northern state is not limited to men either; it even has women in its grip, destroying not only homes but also the futures of many. In fact, some women began to abuse drugs while living with their addict husbands.

Even as hundreds of women in these areas undergo treatment at rehabilitation centres, there is no end to the deaths caused by overdoses. And the inescapable social stigma ensures that such deaths are not reported to the police, because of which there is no precise record of these deaths.

Baljit said her daughter's classmates were drug addicts and offered her heroin — popularly known as 'chitta' in Punjab. "My daughter was always good at studies and sports. Some of her male friends, who were addicts, asked her to try it for fun. But fun turned into addiction… when my husband and I found out about it and admitted her to a rehabilitation centre in Ludhiana. She has been there for the past five months," she added.

Why is Punjab's youth getting high?

Daulewala had become infamous as the drug capital of Punjab, where people used to buy and sell heroin openly. While strict police vigilance and awareness have brought down the number of cases, the problem is far from being eradicated completely.

With lack of employment opportunities and agriculture a less than lucrative business — the way it was after the green revolution — more and more frustrated youths in Punjab have been taking to narcotics in the hope of forgetting their troubles.

Punjabi music is another factor attributed to the high drug consumption in the state. It has been criticised for promoting gun and drug culture in Punjab.

The state's proximity to Pakistan and Jammu and Kashmir, too, has resulted in it becoming a transit route for drugs to be distributed in the rest of the country. The Punjab and Central governments have often accused Pakistan of pumping drugs into the state through illegal routes. As a result, districts like Gurdaspur that border the neighbouring country have a large number of addicts, and on a number of occasions, Border Security Force personnel have nabbed drug smugglers and recovered large consignments of contraband from such border areas.

BSF makes a drug bust in Punjab's Ferozepur. Border Security Force.

BSF makes a drug bust in Punjab's Ferozepur. Border Security Force.

A report by Red Cross Drug De-addiction-cum-Rehabilitation Center in Gurdaspur states: "The geographic location of the district makes the area an important and only passage for all drugs, such as opium, smack and heroin, from every direction across the international as well as inter-state borders. This further makes the district a soft target for all kinds of addictions, affecting not only those who handle them for smuggling… Easy availability of these drugs, which are sold cheap, fuels addiction to such substances, preying upon the natives regardless of caste, creed, colour, sex, race, profession or education."

Politics over drugs

The drug menace remains a favourite among the issues Punjab's political parties like to bring up at election campaigns.

Before the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and 2017 Assembly polls, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) had promised to tackle the problem and also take action against senior leaders of the then ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) leaders allegedly involved in drug trade.

The Congress, too, had launched scathing attacks on SAD for not being able to tackle the menace that had claimed several lives and ruined countless homes. After coming to power in the state, the Congress set up a Special Task Force to fight the drug problem. It has since arrested a number of smugglers and seized tons of drugs, but the problem still prevails.

AAP's Sadhu Singh, who had defeated SAD's Paramjit Kaur Gulshan in 2014, represents the Faridkot Lok Sabha constituency, under which Moga falls. Despite repeated attempts, he remained unavailable for a comment on how his party is tackling the grave drug menace.

Congress no better?

Other areas of Punjab fare no better when it comes to this, with deaths due to overdose becoming a common phenomenon statewide. Last year, a video had gone viral of a mother crying over the body of her son, who had died of a suspected drug overdose, lying on a garbage dump. It had invited biting criticism of the Congress-led state government. The anger all around stemmed from the fact that the ruling party had not practised what it had preached ahead of the Assembly polls — it had accused SAD of not curbing the drug menace, resulting in the latter losing power in the state in the elections.

Now, SAD is leaving no opportunity to attack the Congress with regard to this problem, claiming that the government has failed to tackle the drug menace despite promising to. SAD's senior vice-president Maheshinder Singh Grewal said it is shocking that the Congress, which used to claim it would nip the menace in the bud within weeks of coming to power, had failed at the task so miserably.

However, Congress MLA from Moga, Harjot Kamal Singh, claimed that the problem of drug addiction in the region had decreased manifold. "Effective measures by the police in Moga have brought the area out of the clutches of drugs. Even villages like Daulewala aren't drug havens anymore," he added.

The BSF often nabs smugglers trying to transport drugs from across the border through Punjab to other parts of India. Border Security Force.

The BSF often nabs smugglers trying to transport drugs from across the border through Punjab to other parts of India. Border Security Force.

Damning drug findings

A study funded by the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare states: "0.27 million (2.5 percent of the source population) in the state were estimated to be opioid dependent, of which nearly 78,000 (0.7 percent) were injecting opioid users, predominantly heroin and buprenorphine, 60 percent of whom exhibited high-risk behaviour. But only 14 percent of the RAS sample had ever visited any de-addiction centre, and only 2.8 percent of individuals had been admitted to a de-addiction centre in the past year."

Dr Madhumeeta Banerjee, who runs NGO Sadhbhavna in Ludhiana's Raikot that helps drug addicts recover, said drug addiction carries such a heavy stigma in Punjab that people are not ready to accept that their own family member is an addict.

Her analysis rings true at this Ferozepur household — Sukhwinder Kaur still cannot believe that her husband Surjit Kumar died at 35 due to a suspected drug overdose last year. Surjit, who worked at a local shop as a helper, and Sukhwinder, a homemaker, got married in 2012. It was all rosy till the secret of his drug addiction came to light.

"He (Surjit) used to come home on time every day and talk to me at length about his day. Then four years into our marriage, he started coming home late regularly. One day, I found out that he had started taking a white powder through a syringe," she said.

Sukhwinder has been leading a miserable since her husband's death. She is now forced to work as a helper at a landlord's house in Bazidpur village of Ferozepur.

The situation at some of Punjab's villages is so terrible that women have resorted to carrying out vigil marches, armed with batons, every evening to keep an eye on drug peddlers and addicts. In Mansa district, the regularity of these vigils has brought the women face to face with hostile addicts.

electiononthego

Meanwhile, state Finance Minister Manpreet Singh Badal, during the recent Budget Session of the Punjab Assembly, said an Outpatient Opioid Assisted Treatment (OOAT) project had been launched in all districts.

"Presently, 168 OOAT clinics are functional, akin to community health centres, where medicines are being provided to patients for free. A total of 62,943 patients hace registered at these clinics, and another 65,000 are getting treatment at registered private de-addiction centres," he added.

The government has also started a 'buddy programme', wherein students are taught about the ill effects of drugs, and they, in turn, teach the same to the younger pupils. So far, the state has formed 5.5 lakh buddy groups, with the aim to cover at least 40 lakh students in Punjab.

With inputs from Gaurav Monga

The author is an Amritsar-based freelance-writer and state editor of 101Reporters


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