There has been a lot of discussion over the past few years regarding the prevalence of drugs in Punjab and their wide abuse by the people of the state, especially the youth. This debate played a role in the outcome of the recent Lok Sabha elections. As usual, the police and politicians have come in for criticism for allowing the trade to flourish. However, the problem is a complex one and does not lend itself to easy solutions.
While opium, poppy husk and liquor have been around for a long time, the greatest damage is being done by synthetic drugs. The police have a big role to play in making the availability of drugs difficult. However, why has society come to such a pass that people have to take recourse to drugs? To understand this, we need to correlate the increase in the use of drugs with changes in society.
Punjab was a predominantly rural and close-knit society based on the village as its edifice and the family as the foundation of that. This society has undergone a radical transformation. The village is no longer an island to itself and the joint family is withering away. The rapid march of transport, communication, media and information technology have closed the gap between rural and urban societies.
In the ‘50s and ‘60s, movement to the urban areas and drastic changes in rural society were forestalled for some time because of the Green Revolution. Prosperity spread at a fast pace and farming became a boon. After Partition, politicians, bureaucrats and agriculture scientists of integrity strode across Punjab, creating new institutions and invigorating old ones. The Bhakra Dam at Nangal, Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana and the setting up of Chandigarh, were important milestones.
Added to this was the first wave of the Punjabi NRIs, working abroad with a close link to their home state. Most of their earnings was sent straight back to the family. Global exposure widened the horizon of aspiration and ambition.
CORRUPTION, LACK OF INNOVATION
Agriculture was no longer the only option available. A career in the defence services besides the private sector began to beckon the village youth. The growth of larger cities and the development of smaller towns also became magnets to draw people from villages. This period saw tremendous recruitment in government departments as a whole new concept of development in various fields led to jobs being easily available in the public sector. Punjab played a major role in making India self-sufficient in food besides contributing to the defence and paramilitary forces and administrative services. It became one of the most prosperous states. The Partition was a thing of the past. The Punjabi flair and swagger was back.
However, all revolutions fade away unless reinvented constantly. The Green Revolution too died due to a subsequent lack of innovative leadership at all levels and the refusal to explore new avenues. With time, these sources of employment began to dry up and as corruption increased at all levels, recruitment became a victim too. Jobs had to be bought and then one had to recompense for the investment. Corruption over the years ate into the social fabric like cancer. Today, the sole value system in society is money and nobody questions anyone about its source. The breakup of the family, corruption in society, the failure to develop at the required pace, the petering away of the Green Revolution and the resulting unemployment have led to frustration among the youth.
Gloom began to descend on Punjab again and people started looking for new avenues abroad. Migration began first to the West and later to the Middle East, which was a low-cost option to begin with but developed into a high-cost one as the tribe of unscrupulous travel agents increased. The youth and their families in the rural areas were prepared to pay, and paid, phenomenal amounts to reach their destinations. Thousands were duped and deported, while thousands succeeded too. The success stories added to the desire, and stress, among the youth.
At the same time, the migration to the urban areas turned into a flood but jobs were not available there as Punjab could not become an investment destination for the private sector.
Meanwhile, the quality of governance fell and criminals made their way into politics. Politics became a field for people with deep pockets. The unholy nexus between criminals, politicians, bureaucrats and police came into existence. This was joined by the drug mafia.
BLOW OF MILITANCY
With the dawn of the ‘80s, Punjab saw the arrival of militancy, a horror that was not anticipated by the public or even by its sponsors who were stakeholders in politics and religion. The events of those days leading up to Operation Bluestar shook up the entire structure of the state. It led to the absence of rule of law besides social upheaval and the total depletion of development resources. The people, especially the youth, were directionless and had to pick up the pieces of their shredded lives with practically no help. The result was rural unemployment, refusal of the youth to work on farms, loss of family and societal support, rise of slums and large-scale corruption. The decimation and impoverishment of Punjabi society in the two lost decades was of a magnitude that required a gigantic response from the state and society. Instead, it was business as usual. Where was the salve to heal the wounded soul of Punjab? The salve that should have come from the state and NGOs came from the drug mafia. A wide range of drugs from the most sophisticated to cheaper chemical options became available. Most youth fell for this easy way to “peace of mind”.
The drug problem took decades to build and it cannot be solved overnight. Locking up a few thousand addicts or even a few big ones won’t help. As long as a demand exists, supply will be there. Let the government coopt all stakeholders, including the youth, their families and NGOs. Give them the freedom, opportunity, and tools to let their enterprise flourish. Throughout history, Punjab has faced its challenges and its invaders, yet survived and prospered. Let us give tomorrow a chance.
Punjab’s biggest and best resource was its human resource. Let us nurture and empower it. For, if this resource is destroyed, Punjab will be history.
(The writer is a retired IPS officer of the Punjab cadre and a former chairman of the Union Public Service Commission. He has been the governor of Manipur and Nagaland)