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Punjab’s struggle with drugs

Rahul Gandhi’s recent remarks may have sparked a controversy concerning the extent of drug abuse in Punjab, but it’s no secret that drug addiction amongst the youth in the state is huge. A ground report by Anshu Seth, Aarish Chhabra and Vishav Bharti.

india Updated: Oct 21, 2012 01:18 IST

Trust a satirist to put complicated matters into perspective. So as the political class of Punjab debates the veracity of Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi’s comment that 7 out of 10 youngsters in Punjab are ‘into drugs’, satirist Jaspal Bhatti wrote on Twitter: “Why’s Akali Govt. angry at Rahul Gandhi? Is he trying 2 snatch the credit from them for making Punjab 70% drug addict?” (sic)

Over the past week, what could have been an opportunity to start a debate on how to pull Punjab’s Gen-Y out of the abyss, has been reduced to a centre-state rhetoric. While Rahul, in his speech at Panjab University in Chandigarh, blamed the SAD-BJP government for the drug problem, the state government has passed the buck back to the centre and also interpreted Rahul’s concerned comment as an insult of the state’s youth.

Acknowledge first
An affidavit submitted by the Punjab government in the high court three years ago, cited a report which concluded that 70% of the state’s youth are hooked to drugs. The Congress has been flashing the affidavit to prove that Rahul was right.

The irony is: the writer of report, Amritsar-based sociologist Ranwinder Singh Sandhu, insists that his 2006 study has been misinterpreted: “I didn’t study the general population, but a scientific sample of 600 drug addicts from four districts — Amritsar, Jalandhar, Patiala and Bathinda. The aim was to understand the trend within the addiction circles, and we found that 73.5% of the drug addicts belong to 16-40 age group. That’s the ‘7/10’ that people cite.”

He adds: “Irrespective of my report, the drug problem must be acknowledged first. They (govt.) don’t think it’s a problem. Why has there never been a survey to determine the extent?”

The same affidavit makes another claim: 67% of rural households in Punjab have at least one drug addict.It also mentions, “Households survey conducted by ICD (International Classification of Diseases of the UN) indicates that there is at least one drug addict in the 65% of families in Majha and Doaba and 64% of families in Malwa. 3 out of 10 girls have abused one or the other drug. Nearly 66% of school students take gutka or tobacco; and about 7 out of 10 college students abuse one or the other drug.

Pay attention to markers
At least 5,000 drug addicts undergo treatment every year at the 51 rehabilitation centres across the state. Amanjeet Singh, president of the Punjab State Drug Counselling and Rehabilitation Centres Union, says,”The number of addicts admitted in each centre was 80-85 till 2007, and has now gone up to 190 in some centres.” Ludhiana, Moga, Hoshiarpur, Kapurthala are the hub of synthetic drugs; Amritsar, Tarn Taran, Gurdaspur, Ferozepur and Jalandhar are known for heroin, cocaine and smack. Mansa, Bathinda and Patiala have maximum number of opium and poppy husk addicts.

Transit route?
According to the state govt 40% of all drugs transited via India to the West go through Punjab. There’s reason to believe that the route is turning into a destination. A recently released study by Chandigarh’s Post-Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER) to assess patterns of abuse in northern India over three decades (Sept 1978 to Dec 2008) found an eight-fold increase in patients who approached the institute for de-addiction. The number of those registered for de-addiction rose from 555 in the first decade (1979 to 1988) to 4,168 in the third decade (1999 to 2008).

This study, too, is not as specific as the PGIMER gets a third of its patients from Punjab while the rest are from Chandigarh and neighbouring Haryana, Himachal and J&K. Satish Sachdeva, who works for rehabilitation sums up by saying, “The Congress and the SAD are blaming each other but none is interested in dealing with the genesis. The need of the hour is to acknowledge, study, and then eliminate the problem.”

Imprisoned by addiction: problem of drugs in Punjab’s prisons
The problem of drugs in prisons of Punjab is another issue that has cropped up in the recent past. The state government has not succeeded in freeing prisoners from addiction. Of the 11,189 undertrials in the district jails, 4,507, nearly 30% are facing the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act. Among the 6,839 convicts, NDPS convicts are 2,103, which is over 40%. A report compiled by the department of health and family welfare says 62% of prisoners are drug abusers and 20% are addicts. Of the 35 posts of medical officers in the jails, 10 are vacant. There are just 21 pharmacists against the sanctioned 41, and just four psychologists. Principal secretary (home) DS Bains, says, “De-addiction programme will be started in eight central jails by October end.” — Anshu Seth

The heroine route: why Punjab is vulnerable to an inflow of the drug
Over the past year, there has been a hike in smuggling heroin from the Pakistan border, but the state is mainly a transit point. “Heroin starting at R1 lakh/kg from Pakistan is received in Punjab at R10 lakh/kg. Once smuggled out to the West, its further sold at R5 crore/kg in the international market,” says BSF inspector general Aditya Mishra. The modus operandi is pushing the drug using plastic pipes through border's barbed wire. But the recent heroin hauls from the Samjhauta Express, and from imported cement bags, indicate smugglers are adopting every possible route. The State Special Operation Cell that made many recoveries from the border districts, especially Amritsar, has seized 476 kg heroin from 2005 to October this year. — Rajeev Bhaskar and Aseem Bassi

Case study: taking the right step
Reports say that the number of people registering for de-addiction has increased. Here are some stories of hope...

Gurpreet Singh (30), Thattian village (Amritsar)
“I started with cough syrups in 2004 then tried injections before switching over to heroin. Paying for a single dose every day became difficult as a gram costs Rs. 700-1,000. I started stealing motorbikes and pump-sets from the fields. My condition deteriorated and I met with six accidents times in three years. I have three metal plates in different parts of my body. Ultimately, I knew I needed help.”

Sukhbir Singh (35), Nihal Singh Wala (Moga)
“I started popping prescription drugs when I was 12. When even 100 tablets a day didn’t give me kick, I started taking poppy husk and opium. I began stealing jewellery, the goldsmiths, knowing my addiction gave me inadequate money in lieu of the stolen articles. I became violent and my parents took me to various rehabilitation centres.NowI am determined to quit drugs.”

Rajwinder Singh (35), Sansarpur (Jalandhar)
“Married for seven years, I was on the verge of losing my family when I finally decided to say no to drugs. It was not easy to deal with the withdrawal symptoms as I had stomach cramps and severe headache But I braved everything with the support of the staff at the rehab centre. Yoga sessions and sports have helped me a lot. This is my last chance to save my family.”

Pritpal singh (35), Bhagalpur (Kapurthala)
“I used to consume smack worth Rs. 1,500 every day, lived by cheating others for 10 years. A driver by profession, I married early and hid my problem from my wife. I used to even hit my wife but the eyes of my five-year-old son made me feel guilty. Unable to face him, I wanted to get out of the vicious circle and opted for de-addiction.”

(As told to Anshu Seth)