Apropos of Pawan Sharma’s report,
‘The big bust: Punjab’s all-out war on drugs’
(Hindustan Times, December 31, 2014).
Since the report appeared, the Border Security Force (BSF) has made some more drug seizures at the border; the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) has held its sit-ins (dharnas) along the border; its partner -- the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) -- is gearing up another ‘show’ against the menace as the event aimed at creating ‘awareness’ is slated for January 22, as per media reports.
How does Punjab plan to tackle this ‘psycho-socio-medical’ problem?
Competitive politics will serve little or no purpose in solving the drug menace. Neither will the ‘war of statements and counter statements’ or the big-ticket government-sponsored ‘advertisements’ in the media -- both print and electronic -- presenting a ‘clean’ image of the party (SAD) and the government and pointing fingers at others, including central agencies, neighbouring states and opponents, serve any purpose, as these seemingly are aimed only at scoring brownie points.
The new-found focus on the menace of drugs or substance abuse should not remain a one-time flash in the pan. It has to be a long-drawn ‘war’. Several reports and studies are afloat, focusing on this scourge afflicting Punjab.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his All India Radio (AIR) talk-show, ‘Mann Ki Baat’ (December 15, 2014) had drawn nation’s attention to this serious issue linking it to terrorism -- “drug-terror” -- and had asked the youth to shun narcotics! Punjab found a special mention in his address for ‘drug abuse’ and trafficking.
Though this issue has dominated the media for a pretty long time, no tangible steps are visible to sternly deal with smuggling, sale, consumption and rehabilitation of the addicts via counseling or in de-addiction centres.
For a broad view of the drug-world, a comprehensive report -- ‘Substance abuse in Punjab’ (2001) -- is available. It’s a study the department of planning (social service division), government of Punjab had entrusted to the Institute for Development and Communication (IDC), Chandigarh.
Though conducted in 2001, the study is still relevant as it throws light on basic structure, extent and modus operandi of drug-trade. The situation in the past 14 years has only gone from bad to worse. With frequent news reports of huge haul of narcotics at the border, intra-state drug trafficking is no less serious a problem with alleged involvement of police, politicians and NRIs (non-resident Indians).
It is widely reported and believed that no drug mafia operations are possible without political and police connivance, which ostensibly provide the protective umbrella to the mafia gangs. Some cosmetic ‘action’ against small-time carriers and couriers or shoving petty addicts into ill-equipped de-addiction and inhospitable rehabilitation centres is no proof of government’s seriousness to tackle the situation, which has assumed alarming proportions, virtually ruining lives of youth and their hapless families across the state.
The IDC report links drug abuse to Punjab’s ‘culture’ and talks of the association of human beings with psychoactive drugs as a worldwide phenomenon. Punjab and India serve as a transit route or conduit for illicit traffic of drugs (heroin, brown sugar, charas, ganja and opium) given their proximity to the ‘golden triangle’ (Laos, Thailand, Burma) and the ‘golden crescent’ (Iran, Afghanistan, Iran), which supply more than 70 per cent of the drugs to the world.
At the instance of the World Health Organisation and the World Bank, the state health department conducted a study (2001) and came out with alarming findings. According to it, every third male and every 10th female student in the state (Punjab) has had drugs on some pretext or on one occasion or the other. A sample survey of nearly 5,000 students reported the highest prevalence of drug abuse in the age group of 16 years to 25 years.
Another survey revealed that 53 percent of the males and 48 percent of the females were prone to drug addiction. An opinion survey by PAU, around the same time, also revealed that about three-fourths of the rural male adults were habitual drug takers in 22.83 percent of the villages. Moreover, the extent of substance abuse was fairly widespread to all the three distinct regions -- Doaba reported 68.6 percent addiction, Malwa 64.69 percent and Majha 61 percent. Even the type and variety of drug consumed varied in the three regions.
Interestingly, the state government’s own department of social security development of women and children’s website draws attention to the ‘alarming’ situation and talks of ‘dark days ahead’, given Punjab’s ‘drug epidemic’. The department says that in the border-belt, rate of heroin abuse among the youth (15 years to 25 years) is as high as 75 percent, while the percentage for other rural areas is 73. Secondly, as many as 67 percent rural households have at least one addict in the family and each week sees at least one death in the region due to drug overdose.
The listed ‘recreation’ drugs include ‘Bhuki’ (a kind of wild grass found all over the state) considered to be the ‘gateway’ to drugs, as it gives mild intoxication. Next is heroin, which comes from Afghanistan via Pakistan and is attracting youth. Then there is opium and its derivatives and morphine. The government website goes on to describe dangers from heroin consumption leading to death, hurting family, friends and society.
In fact, many brands of ‘toothpaste’ in the region containing nicotine are a craze. There are reports of excessive use of these toothpastes as it is relatively cheap and easily available and comes handy to experience ‘nicotine high’. Also listed are poppy-husk, cocaine, ‘bhang’, smack, ‘beedi’, fortwin and morphine injections, alcohol, etc.
There is another factor: ‘narco-terrorism’ -- a hostile neighbor flooding the state with drugs to weaken the youth by alluring them to drugs. ‘ICE’, ‘codeine cough syrup’, ‘ink-correction fluid’, ‘foils’ of psychotropic drugs/pain killers are also in use. There are reports that Punjab had admitted in an affidavit submitted to the Punjab and Haryana High Court in 2006 that 70 percent youth is addicted to the drugs in the state.
The department has analyzed the reasons for high drug abuse in the state. One is ‘easy availability and access’ to the ‘substances’. The other, for such over indulgence, is attributed to the ‘green revolution’ -- with rural youth turning away from farming and being uneducated or semi-educated, they are unable to find jobs anywhere, making them vulnerable to drugs. This leads to crime, as well.
Even the stringent Narcotics, Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS), Act 1985, seemingly has had no effect on drug trade and consequential crime rate. This is despite Punjab claiming to have registered maximum number cases under this Act in the country. Media reports indicate that the government is proposing yet another survey on the extent of drug abuse and is involving the Indian Council of Medical Research and PGI.
The drug abuse in Punjab has attracted the attention of even the western media, which has voiced concern over the “whole younger generation getting addicted to ‘recreation’ drugs”. What are the factors driving drug abuse in India’s Punjab’? This is the title of Rahul Advani’s study (September 2013), a research assistant at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He has reported that 60 percent of all illicit drugs confiscated in India are seized in Punjab.
Quoting a United Nations AIDS/SPYM report (2008), he reveals that “injecting drug use is of recent onset. The blame for drug abuse has also been attributed as much to Punjabi culture as to masculinity concept.
That the situation is alarming is also borne out by a report, ‘Drug abuse and alcoholism in Punjab’ (2011), prepared by the Union ministry of youth affairs and sports, which says that 40 percent of the Punjab youth (15 years to 25 years) has fallen prey to drug abuse in the state, which means between 1.5 million and 2 million are addicts. The consequence of this is crime, broken homes, destroyed families and children’s emotional, psychological and development problems. As this segment of the youth enters productive and reproductive stage, the problems get further aggravated.
The UN office on drugs and crime in a survey between March 2000 and November 2001 revealed that besides opium emerging as the largest culprit, ‘propoxyphene’ has been found to be a commonly used ‘injecting’ drug.
Analysts are of the opinion that in the wake of the green revolution’s losing its steam, there appeared technological fatigue, income growth slowed down, employment opportunities shrunk and agricultural economy stagnated, while aspirations of the youth soared. This mismatch led to drug abuse, as ‘wealthy’ youth could not continue to bask in the reflected glory of the heydays of the green revolution”.
(The writer is a senior journalist and former information commissioner of Punjab. The views expressed are personal)