Gurshinder Kaur, a school principal in a village near India’s border with Pakistan, can draw up a long list of local men lost to heroin, which passes across this fertile agricultural belt on its way from Afghan poppy fields to users in the West. Kaur’s cousin was arrested last month on smuggling charges. Another cousin, her next-door neighbour, changed over four years into a menacing, manipulative specter, forcing his mother to provide him with money until he turned up dead one day, of an overdose.
It has become reflexive for Kaur to scan her 17-year-old’s eyes every time he arrives home, searching for signs that he has tried heroin. At a family wedding, the day before, she counted four young relatives who had crossed that line. “They were there,” she said. “But they had become empty.”
Punjab’s drug problem, which in past years was discussed in a hush in family circles, is being trumpeted by opposition parties this year as a full-blown social crisis. With unemployment high, and 2,30,000 men and women estimated to be dependent on opioids, an anti-incumbent wave seems likely to force the Shiromani Akali Dal from power in state elections on Saturday and clear the way for major gains by the Aam Aadmi Party, a young political group founded to fight corruption.
In interviews in the affected region, many voters complained that local politicians had enriched themselves by protecting powerful smugglers from arrest, though they could offer little in the way of specific evidence.
Government statistics show that a police crackdown over the last two years has had some success in reducing the supply of heroin, and public rehabilitation centers have proliferated. But that has done little to blunt the public anger, or the human damage.
“People are very, very angry, if they come from a home where anyone is using drugs,” said Dharminder Singh, 22, who said he planned to vote for the Aam Aadmi Party. He said he was so unnerved by watching the deterioration of one of his uncles, a small-town shopkeeper who is injecting heroin, that he had decided to move to Canada.
“I am going from here because of the drugs, to get away,” he said. “I am afraid. If one time you will taste it, then you will not be able to stop.”
Emotions run particularly high in the district of Tarn Taran, where every morning solitary farmers fan out through a border security fence to mist-shrouded cropland along the 60-mile border with Pakistan. In years past, smuggling networks moved gold bullion and weaponry into India to feed a militant Sikh insurgency; those pathways became the basis for a drug trafficking route, using villagers as couriers.
The smugglers throw parcels of heroin across the border in bottles, or enlist farmers to carry the drugs after pushing the parcels into long plastic pipes using a wire, said Faiyyaz Farooqui, a counterintelligence official in the Punjab police. Once, after a farmer explained that he had to remove a tree, police found that logs had been hollowed out to conceal a large shipment of heroin.
Among those recently arrested is Baldev Singh, 48, a farmer from the village of Rajoke, who was caught with more than 1 pound of heroin, worth more than $370,000 on the international market, in the speaker box of his tractor’s stereo.
Singh’s relatives describe him as so poorly educated that he cannot read a clock. His wife, Sharanjit Kaur, said a stranger had offered him 20,000 rupees, or about $300, to pick up the parcels of heroin.
“He is a simple man,” she said. “He is not very greedy. It’s just that on that occasion, he was trapped.”
The arrests of Singh and a younger cousin, Pargat, have infuriated their relatives, who say they face prosecution only because they are so poor.
“The big fishes have lots of money, so they pay the money and they get out of it. The politicians protect them,” said Iqbal Singh, 70, Pargat’s father. “The small people, they get arrested.”
Equally maddening, to many, is the fact that many in the governing party deny that drugs are a problem.
In Rajoke’s tiny police outpost, less than 1 mile from Baldev Singh’s house, the head constable, Jarnail Singh, said he had not heard a single complaint about drug use or trafficking in his six months of service. Jasbir Singh, leader of the Akali Dal party in Rajoke, said no drug smuggling or use had occurred in Rajoke in the last 10 years.
“This is a big myth,” he said.
Virsa Singh Valtoha, a legislator in the Tarn Taran district, was more measured, saying Punjab had made progress in controlling the problem.
“We took tough measures against it,” he said. “Nobody was spared. Now the problem is very less. I won’t say that it is totally finished.”
Some voters said they would stick with the Akali Dal party because, they reasoned, the opposition would be no less corrupt. Ranjit Singh, 32, said he believed that smugglers had received protection from Akali Dal legislators when they faced arrest, and that the legislators relied on the cartels in exchange for votes and cash assistance.
“We need a messiah,” he said.
For now, families are moving on without loved ones lost to drugs.
Sumandeep Kaur, a pale, straight-backed woman of 24, was three months into her arranged marriage when she realized that her husband, from a prosperous farming family in Rajoke, had resumed using heroin. His drug friends would begin calling him first thing in the morning, she said. She would beg him, and berate him, but he went anyway.
“For one or two days, he would ignore them, but they would say, ‘Come on, come on,’ and he would start again,” said Kaur, who grew up in Amritsar, Punjab’s capital. “We were pulling from this side, and they were pulling from that side.”
He died of an overdose 19 days before the birth of their son, who is now 5.