Farm owners in Punjab once used opium as steroid for migrant labourers to work harder. The daily dose has snowballed into a major crisis — their wards and other locals are now addicted to heroin and other narcotic substances.
Farmer Muktiar Singh of Kalal Majra village in Barnala district, whose 30-year-old son is undergoing treatment at a private de-addiction centre in Ludhiana, blames it on the free distribution of drugs by politicians during elections.
“I have spent Rs. 1.5 lakh on my son’s treatment so far. But it is much less than what he blew up in the last four years on heroin shots at Rs. 1,200 a day,” Muktiar says.
In Kirpal Singh Wala village nearby, 60-year-old Ajmer Singh spent 40 years of his life addicted to opium and poppy husk. “Drugs helped me drive trucks for hours without getting tired. I am on treatment but I am not sure if I can kick the habit,” he says.
Ajmer is one of 2.5 lakh addicts who have undergone or are undergoing treatment after the Parkash Singh Badal government launched a de-addiction drive from June 19. According to Punjab health minister Surjit Jyani, about two lakh patients were treated at government OPDs while several others were admitted in government rehab clinics till August 11.
According to the Indian Association of Private Psychiatry, Punjab and Chandigarh chapter, the rush to de-addiction centres following the police’s crackdown on trafficking is ‘like an epidemic’. Centres in some civil hospitals are taking in 500-600 addicts.
“The problem was not addressed for decades. Now Punjab is showing the withdrawal symptoms of prolonged drug abuse,” Satyan Sharma, the association’s general secretary, says.
Apart from fear of arrest, a three-fold jump in drug prices post-crackdown has made many head for the de-addiction centres. “The government claims to have cut supply lines but the stuff is available through the same channels, though no longer affordable,” Lakhwinder Sharma, a Ludhiana-based patient, says.
Health officials feel snapping the supply chain totally can be counter-productive. “Addicts might go berserk if a robust treatment network is not ensured first,” Satish Thapar, programme officer of the health department’s mental health and de-addiction cell, says.
The treatment, as it is, has led to complications. “The antidote to opium is opium and the medicine is now being misused. We have reports that for one patient there are four queuing up at government OPDs for opium and selling it outside at higher rates,” Jyani says.