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

Arjun Sharma | Mar 3, 2019 | 7 min read


Arjun Sharma


Moga: Sitting on her bed in a small room of her decrepit house in Daulewala village in Punjab’s Moga, Baljit Kaur (name changed) sheds silent tears; 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 but the stigma that she and her husband will have to carry even if their daughter recovers.

Generally, heroin addiction is perceived as a problem plaguing the urban areas, but the scene in Punjab is the opposite — most addicts are from rural areas. Even as hundreds of women in these areas undergo treatment at rehabilitation centres, there is no end to deaths due to overdose. And the inescapable social stigma ensures that such deaths are not reported to the police, resulting in no precise record of the same.

Baljit said her daughter’s classmates were drug addicts and offered her heroin (or chitta, as it’s popularly called there). “My daughter was always good in studies and sports. Some of her male friends who were addicts asked her to try it for fun. However, fun turned into addiction… when my husband and I found out about it, we admitted her to a rehabilitation centre in Ludhiana; she’s been there for the last five months,” she added.


Why are Punjab’s youth getting high?

The problem of drug addiction in the state is not limited to men; it even has the women in its grip, destroying not only homes but also the futures of many. In fact, some women started abusing drugs while living with their addict husbands.

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 there, problem is far from being over completely.

With lack of employment opportunities and agriculture not remaining a lucrative business, like it was after the green revolution, more and more frustrated youths in the state are taking to narcotics in the hope of forgetting their troubles. Another thing the high drug consumption has been attributed to is Punjabi music, which has been criticised for promoting the gun and drug culture in the state. 

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

A report by Red Cross Drug De-addition-cum-Rehabilitation Center, Gurdaspur, states: “The geographic location of the district makes the area an important and only passage for all drugs, like 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

Drug menace remains among the favourite issues of Punjab’s political parties during election campaigning — not only had the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) promised before the 2014 Lok Sabha polls to tackle the issue, and during the 2017 assembly polls to take action against senior leaders of then ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) leaders allegedly involved in drug trade, but even the Congress 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 had set up a Special Task Force to fight the menace; it was able to arrest many smugglers and seize tons of drugs, but the problem prevails.

Moga (Delete Moga as Sadhu Singh represents entire Faridkot LS constituency)  Faridkot Lok Sabha constituency is represented by AAP’s Sadhu Singh, who had defeated SAD’s Paramjit Kaur Gulshan in 2014. Despite repeated attempts, he remained unavailable for a comment on how his party is tackling the serious problem of addiction.


Congress no better?

Other areas of Punjab fare no better when it comes to this, with deaths due to overdose becoming a common phenomenon everywhere. Last year, a video of a mother crying over the body of her son, who died of a suspected drug overdose, lying on a garbage dump had gone viral, inviting biting criticism of the Congress-led state government. The anger all around stemmed from the fact that Congress had not practised what it preached — the party had accused SAD of not curbing the menace, resulting in the latter losing power in the state in the 2017 assembly polls.

Now, SAD has been leaving no stone unturned to attack the Congress at every opportunity, claiming that the government failed in tackling the drug problem despite promising to. SAD’s senior vice-president Maheshinder Singh Grewal said it’s shocking that the party [Congress] that used to claim it would nip the menace in the bud within weeks of coming to power had failed miserably to do so.

However, Congress MLA from Moga, Harjot Kamal Singh claimed that the problem of drug addiction in the area has 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 said.


Damning drug findings  

A study — ‘Epidemiology of dependence on illicit substances, with a special focus on opioid dependence in the State of Punjab’— funded by the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare states: “As per Rapid Assessment Survey (RAS) and Punjab Drug Use Monitoring Survey (P-DUMS), 0.27 million (2.5% of the source population) were estimated to be opioid dependent, of which nearly 78,000 (0.7% of the source population) were injecting opioid users (IDUs), predominantly heroin (62%) but also buprenorphine (32.5%). High-risk behaviour was reported by nearly 60% of IDUs. Only 14% of the RAS sample had ever visited any de-addiction centre, and only 2.8% individuals had been admitted to a de-addiction centre in the past year.

Dr Madhumeeta Banerjee, who runs the NGO Sadhbhavna in Raikot of Ludhiana 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 addicted.

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

“He [Surjit] used to return home on time every day and talk to me at length about his day. However, after four years of our marriage, he started coming home late regularly; one day, I found out that he had started taking a white powder through syringe,” she said.

Sukhwinder’s life has been topsy-turvy and miserable since; she is now forced to work as a helper at the house of a landlord in Bazidpur village of Ferozepur.

The situation in some of the villages in the state is so bad 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 put the women face to face with hostile addicts.


So what is the government doing?

Finance Minister Manpreet Singh Badal, during the recent Budget session in the state 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 has registered in these clinics and another 65,000 are taking treatment from registered private de-addiction centres,” he added.

The government has also started a ‘buddy’s 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; the programme aims to cover at least 40 lakh students in Punjab. 

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