The other weekend I was driving through Punjab and as our car slowed down for petrol, I saw them. Huddled together in a circle, with strips of cloth tied around their faces to conceal identities. The silver foil being passed around was releasing deadly vapours, but they treated it like manna from heaven, inhaling it like their life depended on it. I was told that when they’re that far gone, their life really does depend on it. Regular doses of cocaine, heroin or meth have become mandatory for most of the Punjab youth, as reports and documentary films like Glut reveal. This is not the glam fiction of Udta Punjab, but the gritty reality of a state under crisis.
According to a report by the Guru Nanak University in Punjab’s largest city, Amritsar, 73.5 per cent of the state’s youth are addicted to drugs. It’s a multi-million nexus operating under the noses of the Border Security Force, Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, Narcotics Control Bureau and Intelligence Bureau. The state disaster management plan for 2010-11 cites “drug addiction” under the “hazard” category and describes the menace as “grievous”. The unprotected passing of needles among addicts often leads to HIV infections and the spread of the virus among users and even their partners, spouses and children. Many die untreated. One approach that may help alter the apathy is to treat users as patients rather than criminals. Even though addicts are seen ‘using’ in plain-sight, the problem still remains underground.
The situation is so grave that there are suggestions from state MPs like Dr Dharamvira Gandhi to legalise marijuana to help wean away addicts. He cited the Narcotics, Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act, 1985 as the culprit behind the rampant usage of ‘hard’ drugs like heroin. Apparently ‘softer’ drugs like marijuana and opium were made illegal under the NDPS Act, but far more harmful drugs like heroin and meth are available through the drug mafia. The suggestion is to rehabilitate the addicts through a regular supply of soft drugs, which have been used ‘for centuries’. People have even taken to growing the hemp plant, which is the supplier of marijuana, in their backyard.
While the suggestion may appear too ‘radical’ for those in denial of the problem, it may be the only solution to the crisis. The nexus of politicians, police and peddlers is bringing the state to its knees. How else can the drug lords continue to be merchants of death? It is only because they are ‘allowed’ to peddle their wears openly that this dark trade is flourishing.
Another theory is that the drug problem indicates a deeper malaise. The root cause lies in the huge economic crisis that the state is facing. Known as the seat of the Green Revolution, farming no longer generates the kind of income it did a few decades ago, and thus many are resorting to drastic measures like suicide and drugs. Many farmers have sold their land holdings, and their children have moved abroad, to Canada or other countries. Those left behind are usually unemployed and become easy targets for the drug mafia.
They become trapped in a vicious cycle of drugs and debt. The only permanent solution to Punjab’s drug problem is to generate more job opportunities. Not making soft drugs easily available, but eradicating the root of the problem—unemployment. De-addiction is crucial, but even more crucial is the focus on agriculture and jobs.
Archana Dalmia Chairperson of Grievance Cell, All India Congress Committee