By Vishu Mahajan
The exact scale of the drug problem in Punjab is disputed due to the absence of systematic studies but it is widely accepted that the problem is very severe. Let us begin with whatever facts are available. A study conducted by the Guru Nanak Dev University in Amritsar in 2010 suggested that as much as 70% of young Punjabi men (16-25 years) were hooked on drugs or alcohol. The drugs used or rather abused range from cheap and widely available solvents like paint thinners to the costly and highly addictive heroine. In 1998, a case of drug smuggling was registered every 92 hours in Punjab and in 2014, in every 35 minutes.
Rise of Golden Crescent over the past two decades (comprising areas of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan) as the major poppy (plant from which opium is produced which itself is the precursor for production of heroine) producing regions of Asia along with Golden Triangle is the foremost reason for the increase in supply of drugs. The bulk of the world’s heroin now comes from Afghanistan, and its main route into India is through Punjab, via Pakistan. The situation is worst along the Pakistan border. The colony Maqboolpura in Amritsar has come to be known as the “locality of widows and orphans” because of large number of adult men dying of drug abuse.
Opium and poppy husk on the other hand mostly come from Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh where Lanced Poppy Head (LPH) is sold legally by licensed retailers to people with a consumption permit issued by the Excise department. Illegal trafficking of LPH is done along with trafficking of Poppy Husk, a by-product of opium processing.
Increasing Demand – Socio Economic reasons
Corresponding to the increase in supply, there has also been an increase in the number of willing customers with the growth of the state economy. The middle class and the affluent have been the worst victims. During Green Revolution there was more work in the fields which brought more laborers into drug use. It became common for farmers to supply drugs to their laborers since it increased their efficiency. Later on, the decade of militancy also added to the drug trade and smuggling. Punjab prospered from the Green Revolution in the 1970s but failed to build on that boom to attract industrial investment. In the past two decades, population growth has caused landholdings to shrink and economic growth has stagnated. This collapse of both agriculture and industry has caused large scale unemployment. The school infrastructure is also non-existent. In the absence of education and employment, the frustrated expectations of the young population also fuel the demand. Lack of support during stress and peer influence further push individuals to take up drugs.
Attempts in the past decade to tighten the Pakistani border for security reasons drove up the price of heroin and pushed people toward over-the-counter pharmaceuticals that produce a similar euphoric high. Synthetic drugs are produced within the state for consumption and offer a cheaper alternative than heroin to the poorer sections of addicts. Pharmaceutical shops for the purpose have sprung up and proliferated. Controlled substances issued to pharmaceutical units in Baddi (Himachal Pradesh) and Punjab for making medicines are diverted to illicit synthetic drug manufacturers. Consumption of poppy husk and opium has reduced and that of heroin and synthetics has gone up. Lastly, there is also a cultural aspect to the problem. A culture of consumption and masculinity (clearly evident from contemporary Punjabi songs and movies) increases the acceptability and even promotes drugs as a symbol of masculine pride. Alcohol is almost acceptable everywhere. Any dependence on alcohol is not seen as addiction and families rather rejoice that at least the person is not into “drugs”.
What is the impact of such a large scale drug problem?
On the social front, extensive drug abuse always leads to a higher crime rate and corruption as addicts try to get their fix by hook or by crook. There are also bound to be more accidents both due to overdose/mixing and under the influence of drugs. Slowly, drugs destroy entire families as breadwinners get addicted followed by divorces, suicides or death.
The economic costs of large scale addiction are also huge in terms of direct medical costs and indirect medical costs (surge in HIV/AIDS infections) and also due to lost man hours resulting in lowered productivity. Moreover, in absence of legislation and guidelines for treatment, it gives rise to setting up of unethical and unprofessional facilities for de-addiction that exploit the helpless and desperate families, as is happening in the state.
Extent of the problem – Complicity of lawmakers and police
It has been alleged that local politicians and police are taking a cut of the profits and that heroin is also being distributed to influence voters during elections. In 2009, a former police narcotics chief from the state capital, Chandigarh, was arrested in Mumbai and charged with selling drugs. The top bracket of politicians in the state has been questioned for alleged links with the drug network.
Some urgent steps needed
The first and foremost step should be to collect data and find out the exact extent and nature of the problem. This should be accompanied by effective legal measures like regulation of authorized source points including pharmaceutical stores. Over the counter sale of the drugs being abused and licensed sale of Lanced Poppy Heads in Rajasthan and MP must be brought to an end. Speeding up investigations and prosecutions into alleged involvement of lawmakers and policemen and cracking down on distribution of drugs during campaigning for elections is necessary to create deterrence at the highest levels.
Turning the focus on the addicts, private drug de-addiction centers need to be regulated to ensure that the addicts are not exploited by commercial opportunists. Instead, there should be more government de-addiction centers with competent staff. There is a need for trained psychiatrists as currently many rehabilitation centers are being run by peer group counselors and former addicts. The addict undergoing treatment must be shown sensitivity and treated as a medical patient and not a hardened criminal. For this, the NDPS (Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances) Act of 1985 must be amended. An enabling environment comprising support networks of addicts trying to quit, family support, provision of jobs can help the patient during transition.
Finally and most importantly, the onus also lies on us, the society at large to play our crucial role in the matter as argued in almost every previous article on every issue on this website. Increasing awareness in general among people, families and children about the consequences of drug use, making teachers and parents aware so as to detect early users and initiate rehabilitation at the right time are some measures that the people can take.
The Punjab problem is a grim warning of our much touted demographic dividend going down the drain for want of education, skill development and employment opportunities and consequent drug menace. Another worrying development is the spread to neighboring states like Himachal where the smuggling and consumption of synthetic drugs has been rising. This must become a national issue requiring urgent intervention which does not seem to be happening apart from narrow politicking on the issue for electoral returns. On March 19th, the Punjab government presented its State budget. A single lousy paragraph was provided for the drug problem where the government stated that it was doing its best and then went on to allocate 100 crores for deaddiction centers. One would expect a little more concern given that the situation is so bad that there is threat of an entire generation being lost.
More interested readers can see the documentary below: