Punjab teeters on edge of crisis as 70% fall into drug addiction

“In rural Punjab, families often try to pass off a drug overdose death either as suicide or an overdose of prescriptive ...

LETTER FROM PUNJAB: Drugs are seen by many as a bigger threat here than the Sikh insurgency, during which more than 60,000 people died, writes Rahul Bedi.

AFTER YEARS of alternating between ingesting opium and heroin, Joginder Singh (25), from Ferozepur district in India’s northern Punjab province, is an emaciated wreck.

All this once athletic and handsome young Sikh waits for is his next fix as he stares sightlessly across his diminishing ancestral land holdings in Fattuwala village – a large proportion of them periodically disposed of to feed his habit.

In occasional lucid moments the 25-year old vows to kick his debilitating habit, but within hours is back on the drugs.

Efforts to engage him in conversation are futile as he babbles incomprehensibly.

Fellow villagers say the debilitating narcotics had not only ruined Singh but also “estranged” him from his surroundings.

“He does not know night from day. He’s like the walking dead,” Fattuwala resident Rajbir Kaur says.

In the nearby border district of Gurdaspur, Tarseem Singh (23), frequently gulps fistfuls of prescription opiates, painkillers and amphetamines to satiate his addiction.

To sustain his dependency, like tens of thousands of similar addicts across Punjab, he often resorts to petty crime like thieving, but so far has managed to avoid being apprehended. He is under close police watch.

Police and drug enforcement officials in Punjab’s capital Chandigarh say that, unlike Tarseem, many youngsters across the province similarly hooked on drugs graduated to undertaking contract killings for small sums that paid for their next fix.

There has also been the widespread belief in this chauvinistic state that opium increases sexual potency and that opiates help people to work tirelessly – obviously useful at harvest time in this primarily agricultural state.

“Punjab is teetering on the edge of an extraordinary human crisis, with an inordinately large number of youngsters hooked on to marijuana, opium and heroin, in addition to imbibing a range of prescriptive tablets,” says Raj Pal Meena, head of the state’s Anti-Narcotics Task Force (ANTF).

The threat of drugs, he adds, is worse than two decades of Sikh terrorism that ravaged the province until the early 1990s, during which more than 60,000 people died, as it is far more insidious and cannot be rectified by policing. The ANTF says all of Punjab’s 20 districts, particularly border regions, are infested with drug peddlers selling opium and heroin smuggled from Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Money from drug smuggling had, for decades, financed the civil war in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s adjoining tribal regions.

ANTF officials say a large proportion of the 500kg of heroin seized in the state last year was for local consumption, and the rest was destined for western markets. They stress that the seizures represent just a small proportion of the drugs making it through and being sold profitably.

“In rural Punjab, families often try to pass off a drug overdose death either as suicide or an overdose of prescriptive medicines for chronic ailments,” Meena says. The entire state seems to be in denial over its drug addiction and is unwilling to accept its severity, he declares.

Punjab’s grievous drug problem was revealed recently in a report by Guru Nanak University in Punjab’s largest city, Amritsar, which declared that some 73.5 per cent of the state’s youth between 16 and 35 years were confirmed drug addicts.

The study said young people in villages were more prone to drug abuse, and attributed this to high unemployment, social tensions and easily available narcotics.

Shrinking land holdings and limited educational facilities exacerbated the problem by spawning a generation of disenchanted youth who felt inadequate and lacked self-esteem.

“Despite Punjab’s drug epidemic, the government has initiated no formal plan to counter it,” Punjab journalist and commentator Asit Jolly says.

The few trying to raise awareness and organise detoxification programmes were run by religious sects and a handful of non-governmental organisations.

But NGOs face funding problems, as Punjab is viewed as one of India’s most prosperous provinces – and so is seen as not meriting financial intervention as poorer states do.

Efforts to manage Punjab’s drug trade have been hampered by direct police involvement.

Last year the authorities arrested a senior Narcotics Control Board officer for running a major drug peddling operation in Punjab valued at billions of rupees. He is under prosecution, but the syndicate he was a part is reportedly still active.

During the Sikh insurgency, a nexus evolved between narcotic smugglers from Pakistan and local insurgent groups who used the proceeds to fund their “war of liberation” for an independent Sikh homeland.

And though most of the smuggling routes thereby established have since disappeared, the victims they spawned en route have since proliferated – creating a contagion that Punjab ignores at its peril.


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