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Living the high life

With Olympic boxer Vijender Singh embroiled in a drug controversy, a look at why narcotics are so prevalent in Punjab. Navneet Sharma writes. Smoking up | Expert speak

india Updated: Mar 17, 2013 02:07 IST
Navneet Sharma
Navneet Sharma
Hindustan Times
Navneet Sharma,Vijender Singh,hindustan times

On March 7, a police team raided the flat of Canadian NRI Anoop Singh Kahlon and found 26 kg of heroin worth an estimated Rs 130 crore on the international market.

But what startled the cops even more was the "recovery" of a sports utility vehicle (SUV) belonging to Olympic medallist Vijender Singh's wife outside the flat. The drug dealer said Vijender and his friend and sparring partner Ram Singh were among his clients.

Ram later 'confessed' that he and Vijender had experimented with heroin three or four times, "for fun", over the past three months - a charge hotly contested by the latter.

While the jury is still out on the star boxer's possible drug use, the incident is a grim reminder of just how prevalent and entrenched drug abuse is in the state.

To understand why drug use is more prevalent here than in other Indian states - with an estimated 60% to 70% of those aged 17 to 35 living with some form of narcotic addiction - one must return to opium.

Traditionally, farmers would wash a pellet of the stimulant down with their morning milk before heading out into the fields. It was seen as a harmless energy booster.

Over the years, as more powerful drugs became more easily available and more affordable, and as the average income soared, the opium users began to turn to hard drugs such as heroin.

Over the past decade, there has been a surge in the number of people aged 17 to 35 using narcotics.

Though opium and heroin remain the drugs of choice, youngsters from the upper-middle and even the increasingly wealthy urban and rural middle classes have taken to snorting and sniffing cocaine too.

"There is a shift in the drug use trend, from opium to heroin, in the state. Affluent youngsters are moving up the drug chain, taking to heroin because it offers a greater kick," says Jalandhar police commissioner Gaurav Yadav. "Growing affordability and easy availability of these high-end drugs have also contributed to their increased use."

Over the past seven months, a special drive carried out by the state police has led to the arrest of 739 addicts and peddlers in 679 cases in Jalandhar alone.

A disconcerting element of this trend is the drop in the average age of the drug user, with young and well-heeled children now beginning to "experiment" with heroin as early as 17. Relatively inexpensive synthetic drugs are also catching on among youngsters looking for a quick high.

"The drug culture is a serious, multi-faceted problem," says Rajesh Gill, chairperson of the Department of Sociology at Panjab University. "While among the poor, addicts turn to drugs to escape from their problems, among the affluent, especially agriculturists with huge landholdings who made windfall gains in the real-estate boom and now have nothing to do, sometimes each member of the family, including the women, is addicted to a drug of their choice."

There for the asking
Unlike India's metros, there are not many rave parties or underground clubs in Punjab. Instead, the supply chain for narcotics involves small-time shopkeepers and college students, with the drugs consumed behind closed doors in opulent farmhouses.

What makes it so easy to score a hit in the state is its proximity to the global Golden Crescent drug route (Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran).

"After Afghan heroin is smuggled into Punjab through Pakistan, it is routed to metros and tourist centres such as Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Goa and Jaipur for consumption and also shipped to western countries," says an NCB official. "Often, courier services are used to smuggle such consignments out of the country."

Cheap, low-grade heroin is now available in the state for as little as Rs 1,000 per gm. Expert speak

The situation is so grim that, after the last Assembly elections, then chief election commissioner SY Quraishi had, in May 2012, written to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that 40% of the highly potent drugs entering the country were making their way in through Punjab.

The trigger was a haul of 53 kg of heroin and 434 kg of poppy husk during the month-long election period, when security had been tightened.

"The menace is ruining health, well-being and future of the youth," Quraishi wrote, "who were particularly found falling prey to free supply of these substances as inducements during the polls."

(With inputs from Rajeev Bhaskar, Aseem Bassi and Bhartesh Singh Thakur)

First Published: Mar 16, 2013 23:21 IST