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Dhaba bites: Drug menace debate at Punjab eatery is serious food for thought

The conversation raging at Sethi Dhaba in Chandigarh’s Zirakpur is serious. Sitting in a corner, a mix of politicians, experts, college students and locals are discussing Punjab’s drug problem – a key electoral issue.

india Updated: Jan 11, 2017 14:20 IST
Snigdha Poonam and Chitleen Kaur Sethi
Snigdha Poonam and Chitleen Kaur Sethi
Hindustan Times, Zirakpur (Chandigarh)
Drug menace,Punjab,Punjab polls
AAP’s Gurpreet Ghuggi, SAD’s Daljit Cheema and Sukhjinder Randhawa of Congress debate in Zirakpur. (Anil Dayal/HT Photo)

The most remarkable thing about the Sethi Dhaba in Zirakpur, on the outskirts of Chandigarh, is its sense of humour: the walls run over with jokes. “Let your tears flow, otherwise the standing water will attract dengue-causing mosquitoes,” reads a graffiti while a poster on an adjacent wall has the face of the owner next to that of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the first holding a plate full of cash.

But despite the backdrop, the conversation raging at the dhaba is serious. Sitting in a corner, a mix of politicians, experts, college students and locals are discussing Punjab’s drug problem – a key electoral issue.

“It’s too late,” says Ankit Chawla, an undergraduate student at Chandigarh’s DAV college. The epidemic has swallowed Amritsar, his home district, the young man adds in a fit of frustration.

In 2009, the Punjab government admitted to the high court that two–thirds of the rural households had at least one drug addict.

On this afternoon, however, Daljit Singh Cheema, Punjab’s education minister, reiterated the government’s defence. “Don’t give Punjab a bad name, don’t give its youth a bad name.”

He reminded the others at the table that opium has been a part of Punjab’s culture “for ages”. Farmers have used its pure form to relax after a hard day’s work in the fields; college students to fortify their nerves before a tough exam.

Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi has been claiming since 2012 that 70%of the youth in Punjab are addicted. The claim is contested but has added fuel to the raging debate over drug menace in the state in the run up to the assembly elections.

Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal has promised to root out drugs in a month if his Aam Aadmi Party is voted to power in Punjab. The leaders of the Akali Dal which governs the state currently in alliance with the BJP have mostly responded with denial. “Drugs are a problem all over the world,” Cheema argued.

“It rains all over the world—shall we talk about the place that’s facing a flood?” asks Gurpreet Singh Waraich, a stand-up comedian turned convener of AAP in Punjab. AAP, he claims, is the only one with the guts to break the “politician-police-peddler nexus”.

One of the things the ruling coalition often brings up in its defence is the increased seizure of heroin - a four-fold jump over its two terms – that is believed to be routed into Punjab through the “golden crescent” of Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The government has also begun to blame the neighbouring states of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh for running “heroin cottage industries”- the states allow the licensed cultivation of opium -to feed off the demand in Punjab.

Waraich dismisses Cheema’s attempts to channel them (“One state is producing narcotics, other state is blamed for consumption”) with a firm shake of his head. “Let’s not talk about seizure or recovery, let’s talk about consumption.”

“You want to find the evidence of drug use in Punjab?” asks Sukhjinder Randhawa, Congress MLA from Baba Batala, a border constituency. “Climb atop an abandoned water tanker or walk through a cemetery - you will find syringes everywhere,” he points out. “Another generation of Punjab’s youth is turning to waste. Drugs are turning the youth of Punjab impotent. This is what’s leading to the divorce rates.”

His solution: Make the politicians accountable to the supreme saint. “Every politician should enter the gurudwara after being elected and take an oath over the holy book—not to sell drugs, not to overlook its circulation, not to use it for votes.”

“If the government can pull off demonetisation and surgical strike, why can’t it deal with drugs?” asks Sonu Sethi, the jaunty owner of the dhaba.

“I am scared for my sons and I am scared for my students, “says Kanwalpreet Baidwan, who is in charge of two teenage boys at home and hundreds of young men at a college where she teaches. “We had high hopes in the Akalis. It’s the party of gurus. It’s a party of Sikhs, who consider intoxicants as a very bad thing. I feel disappointed.” Looking squarely at the three politicians at the table, the professor asks them to get their act together. “Make my state a safe place for my sons to grow, for my students to grow.”

The upcoming elections will decide who the people of Punjab trusts the most in keeping them safe.

This is first of the five-part series ‘Dhaba Bites’ ahead of the Punjab elections.

First Published: Jan 09, 2017 07:47 IST