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Wednesday, Nov 20, 2019

Captain Amarinder Singh’s drug drive in Punjab races against time

Amarinder Singh government has launched its drive to weed out drugs from Punjab in just four weeks. This has altered the narrative of narcotics being a hot­button political issue to an all­out crackdown.

india Updated: Apr 13, 2017 07:46 IST
Navneet Sharma and Ravinder Vasudeva
Navneet Sharma and Ravinder Vasudeva
New Delhi, Hindustan Times
Punjab Congress chief Amarinder Singh vowed by a holy Sikh book (Gutka) at the historic Talwandi Sabo that he would launch a drive to eliminate the menace of drugs.
Punjab Congress chief Amarinder Singh vowed by a holy Sikh book (Gutka) at the historic Talwandi Sabo that he would launch a drive to eliminate the menace of drugs.

At his first rally after being re-appointed Punjab Congress chief Amarinder Singh publicly swore that if he was voted to power, he will wipe out the drug menace from the state in four weeks.

The drug menace was a key talking point in the run-up to the state elections. Addiction has been a major problem in Punjab, and has only been getting worse. With the exposé of nexus between drug mafia, politicians and police, especially some high profile ministers and leaders of the previous regime, the issue assumed major proportions.

But politicians are known to make promises and forget them. Donald Trump assured people he would make America great again before he became the US President. Narendra Modi’s ‘achhe din’ (good days) are yet to see the light of the day for many Indians even after nearly three years of his Prime Ministership.

Amarinder Singh’s vow, however, was made of different mettle—he had sworn by a holy Sikh book (Gutka) at the historic Talwandi Sabo, the seat of one of five Sikh takhts. It resonated with the crowd, a largely rural and strongly religious one, and got repeated at meeting after meeting, and later found prominence in the Congress manifesto.

After coming to power, Amarinder has shown the intent to act. A special task force (STF) has been formed and he handpicked Harpreet Sidhu, a tough-talking 1992 batch IPS officer with experience in anti-Maoist operations, as his man for war on drugs.

Given a free hand, Sidhu and his team have got cracking from the word go, and have carried out several raids, arrests and seizures.

The drive being “monitored” by the chief minister himself has altered the narrative of drugs being a hot-button political issue to an “all-out crackdown”.


But the question being asked is: can the Congress government meet the oft-repeated deadline—four weeks? The truth is, it is easier said than done.

Former state DGP (prisons) Shashi Kant terms the deadline “far-fetched”. “They need to study the extent of the problem, gather intelligence on known drug smugglers and crack down hard,” he said. The task set out for the STF is not just colossal but also complicated, given how prevalent and entrenched drug abuse is in the border state.

The number of those affected by the problem has been pegged at a varied range by many. Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi claimed 7 out of 10 youths in the state had a drug problem.

The Punjab Opioid Dependence Survey (PODS) carried out by an NGO and experts from AIIMS put the number of drug-dependent persons (read addicts) at 2.3 lakh, estimating the total users to be 8.6 lakh, last year. The survey also reported high prevalence among youth, with 55% of addicts being from rural areas.

While the number of 18–35 year aged drug users has been surging, with heroin (popularly known as chitta) being the popular drug, youngsters from affluent urban families have also been found snorting cocaine, the most potent stimulant of natural origin.

The proximity to heroin-producing Golden Crescent—Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran—and being on its transit route has put Punjab on the highway to hell, despite increased vigil. Nowadays, drugs are also being sourced from within the country, adding to the burden.

Narcotics Control Bureau zonal director, Chandigarh, Kaustubh Sharma, whose team seized 15kg heroin in a joint operation with the Border Security Force in Tarn Taran last week, advises the state police to seek cooperation from Haryana and Himachal Pradesh.

“Heroin availability has increased in these two states and can be sourced from there,” he said.

Besides the ease of availability, the established supply chain includes women and children. The lure of big money has further spread the scourge.

Apart from heroin and cocaine, habit-forming drugs such as tramadol, codeine and alprazolam have added to the complexity of the task, forcing authorities to issue fresh guidelines on January 16 to monitor and regulate their sale to check their misuse.

The swoop down has led to more than 1,000 arrests—350 of them based on tipoffs by general public on ‘181’ toll-free helpline—and recovery of 50 kg of drugs in the first fortnight.

The Enforcement Directorate has attached “unaccounted properties” worth more than 500 crore of those suspected of involvement in illegal trade.

Sidhu, who has been travelling to different districts, has admitted to the gravity of the menace.

“If we don’t stop or curb it right now, things may get worse,” he told HT (read interview).

While the chief minister’s brief to the task force is to go after the ‘big fish’ for maximum impact, most of those arrested are addicts or peddlers. They are yet to lay their hands on a drug lord, but are confident of showing results.

Interestingly, the STF has a different deadline—the four-week time will begin from the day the force was formed, March 31, and not when the Amarinder government took over, March 16. This would give it an extra two weeks.

Shashi Kant also stressed on the n eed for better facilities for de-addiction and rehabilitation of drug addicts and users. “The (current) facilities are not up to the mark.”

His concern, shared by many others, stems from the state of affairs in drug de-addiction and rehabilitation centres. While there is severe shortage of psychiatrists and medical specialists, many rehab centres have not been functioning well. However, state authorities are confident of tackling these issues on priority, citing the ‘free hand’ by the chief minister.