'Udta Punjab' needs a decisive war on drugs; governments, parties need to stop using crisis as a poll plank
It is suspected that the menace of drugs in Punjab spread in the state because of support from local leaders and officials.
Ludhiana: The government of Punjab has taken stringent measures to tackle the drug menace in the state, but the smuggling networks continue to thrive and appear to have sunk their teeth in even deeper into the international and state borders. So thick is the epidemic of drugs in Punjab that the state is on the verge of losing an entire generation to abuse. Cases of authorities seizing contraband have spiked in the past five years despite the government's efforts to try to plug the holes in the network.
The state, which shares a 410-kilometre-long international border with Pakistan, serves as a gateway for cartels to transport their drugs to other South Asian countries through the clandestine land routes of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan — collectively called the Golden Crescent. Heroin, poppy husk, opium and synthetic drugs are the four kinds of narcotics entering the country through Punjab.
According to official statistics, 45 percent of the cases registered under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act last year were from Punjab. Opium and heroin made up the majority of the seized goods.
Bread basket in jeopardy?
Facing criticism for the spate of deaths in Punjab due to drug overdose, the Captain Amarinder Singh-led Congress government has announced a slew of measures to tackle this crisis. This includes mandatory drug tests for all government officials, including the police, proposing death penalty for peddlers, and a more intensive crackdown on the consumption and distribution of drugs by the Punjab Police. However, the sheer enormity of this problem also suggests that the operation is facilitated by some well-oiled networks.
What is required is a more comprehensive war on drugs as the challenges the country's "bread bowl" is facing is substantially huge. Estimates vary, but nearly two-third of Punjab's households are said to have at least one drug addict.
In February, the Border Security Force (BSF) had seized 10 kilogram of heroin, along with arms and ammunition, near the Barreke post in Ferozepur sector of the India-Pakistan border. A Pakistani drug smuggler was also killed in the operation. On 4 July, the BSF and counter-intelligence cell of the Punjab Police had seized 3.9 kilogram of heroin and 100 gram of opium from Kakkar village near the international border. The drugs were buried in fields near the India-Pakistan border.
Such seizures have become routine occurrences in the state. According to data from the Narcotics Control Bureau, Punjab had the highest number of cases of opium seizures (505.86 kilogram) last year and second highest number of cases of heroin seizures (406 kilogram).
Parupkar Singh Ghuman, a senior criminal lawyer in the Punjab and Haryana High Court, said: "Most cases registered by the police are against habitual drug users. The drive against the drug menace will need to be stepped up along with action against major drug suppliers within the country and overseas."
A poignant game changer
While campaigning for the Assembly elections last year, Amarinder Singh had pledged to eradicate the pervasive drug menace in Punjab within four weeks if the Congress was voted to power. In a triangular contest then, both the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party had blamed the top brass of the Shiromani Akali Dal of conniving with the police to facilitate the illegal drug trade.
The Congress government was jolted out of its complacency a year and a half after coming to power, following immense public outcry against the abuse of drugs that has led to the tragic loss of lives and financial stress in several households in the state.
To free the state of drugs, political parties and subsequent governments need to stop making this epidemic a poll plank, as the assisted inflow of drugs is a national hazard given the amount of narcotics that enter the country through Punjab.
Bhupinder Singh Bedi, former chief superintendent of customs in the anti-narcotic cell at the Attari-Wagah border, said that drugs are routed to India "from their points of origin such as Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan" "Support from local leaders and intelligence officials in these South Asian countries have allowed huge-scale cartels that supply drugs, as well as arms and ammunition, an easy existence," he said. "Border residents also get themselves involved in the trade to earn easy money. Through the India-Pakistan border, smugglers use different tactics to traffic drugs. Packets are brought in through long tunnels and underground caves, are dug along both sides of the border. Sometimes, drug packets are even thrown into open fields from the Pakistani side, after which the India-based cartels distribute the product according to the demand. To keep their local distribution system going, traffickers lure the younger generation towards narcotics."
Harpreet Singh Sidhu, additional director general of the Punjab Police Special Task Force (STF), said that the police are "committed to erasing drug abuse from the state" and are "working with a multi-tasking strategy — enforcement, de-addiction and prevention".
Meanwhile, Bharat Bhushan Ashu, the Punjab food and supplies minister, highlighted a number steps the state government has taken to curb the drug menace. "The Congress government has formed a Special Operation Cell and STF to tackle the crisis. The STF, with the help of the state health and education departments, has also launched a 'Buddy Project' to spread awareness among students. The government has also launched a Drug Awareness Prevention Officers programme, under which 35,000 designated officials have taken oath to curb addiction in the state."
The author is a Ludhiana-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters
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