Punjab had witnessed “withdrawal symptoms” of its drug problem for the first time in 2014 after a below-par performance of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) in the Lok Sabha elections had forced it to unleash a crackdown.
At that time, government de-addiction centres at civil hospitals were taking in 500-600 addicts in their OPDs and IPDs. Nearly 2.5 lakh addicts had undergone treatment at just government centres between June 19 — when the drive was launched — to August that year.
As per the data of the health department of which HT has a copy, 2.24 lakh people with substance use disorders were treated on OPD basis in government hospitals and 6,834 were admitted and treated (IPD) in government hospitals in the first 53 days of the anti-drug crackdown between June 19 to August 11, 2014.
The Indian Association of Private Psychiatry, Punjab and Chandigarh chapter, had described the situation as “an epidemic”. “The problem was not addressed for decades. Now Punjab is showing the withdrawal symptoms of the prolonged drug abuse,” the association had said as fear of arrest and a three-fold jump in drug prices post-crackdown made many head for de-addiction centres.
WHO ‘BROKE THE BACKBONE’?
Now, as the Congress government and the opposition Shriomani Akali Dal wage a data war over who “broke the backbone” of drugs in Punjab, figures of drug addicts reaching de-addiction centres in the state reveal the 2014 crackdown by the previous government has had an impact.
The Congress government on Tuesday cited 18,440 OPD visits from March 16 to April 26 and 1,446 indoor patients in the same period just in government hospitals. It went on to add that the “huge numbers” were also being reported from the private centres and hospitals.
But private centres and hospitals deny a surge in number of patients like in 2014. “Three years back in 2014, there was a huge surge in number of patients at both government and private centres. We have not witnessed a similar surge this time. One of the reasons could be the last crackdown has had an impact in curtailing the supply of drugsand weaning addicts off it. This time too, the patients are saying no heroin or chitta is available on the streets,” says Dr Puneet Kathiria, a Ludhiana-based psychiatrist.
“Last time, the crackdown was sudden and a panic had set in. But since the administration has been playing an active role since 2014 in curtailing the problem, there is a consensus among members of the association that the number of addicts turning up at the private centres is far less. The social sanction that some drugs like opium and poppy husk had was also over with the government crackdown on these as drugs. But no government should treat it as a war on drugs. Only curtailing the supply cannot end the problem. The addicts go through major cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Instead of creating indoor infrastructure, the government should focus on treating patients in OPDs. Most of the addicts belong to marginalised sections who cannot afford to live in rehabs,” says Dr Ashwin Mohan, a Chandigarh-based psychiatrist of the state chapter.
But Punjab health minister Brahm Mohindra dubs the last government’s figures as a “show-off”. “The police forcibly brought addicts to de-addiction centres. Right from patwari to tehsildars, everyone was asked to get at least 50 people to make up the numbers in the first month of June,” he says.
ADDICTS THRONG PRIVATE CENTRES
The sprawling Max Hospital in Bathinda explains why psychiatrists do not land up even in walk-in interviews by the government and even addicts throng private centres despite the high charges.
The Max Hospital charges Rs 1800 for daycare, Rs 35,000 for seven-day stay, Rs 50,000 for 15-day stay and Rs 90,000 for a month’s stay and people even take loans to get treated at private hospitals. The man running it, Dr Satish Thappar, had earlier led Punjab’s fight against de-addiction as programme officer of the government’s mental health and de-addiction cell.
“I left the government service as it was not worth the harassment one faces. Out of 18 years of my service, I have been in government for 14. The government wants to hire psychiatrists at the same basic pay. Then they do not get preferred area of posting. They are asked to do other duties too, including post-mortems. I was once asked to check quality of a mid-day meal. The psychiatrists in government jobs become a mental wreck themselves,” he said.
On addicts, Thappar maintains they may go berserk if a robust treatment network is not ensured first. “The antidote to opium is opium and the medicine can be misused. Some are queuing up at government OPDs and private centres to sell it outside at higher rates. We have a questionairre to check if the patient is an addict,” he says. How? “The pulse rate is the first indicator. The government too needs to read the pulse of the drug problem,” he adds.