Punjab's bitter harvest

Punjab's bitter harvest

 A liquor shop next to a medical shop;
Stooping lifelessly amidst lush green fields in Tarn Taran’s Narli village in Punjab, a stone’s  throwaway from Indo-Pak border, Sukhwinder Singh, 29, curses the day he first touched heroin. His pale eyes well up as he bites his thin lips constantly to stifle snivel. I have killed myself, he grieves.

Easy accessibility of drugs owing to proximity with Pakistan border and relentless habit of using a cocktail of drugs has made Sukhwinder pay a heavy price. An AIDS patient now, he buries his face in his hands: “I’ve nothing to look forward to in life. What will I do?”

Sukhwinder’s is a despairingly familiar story in today’s Punjab, that has been engulfed by the all-pervading malady of drug addiction. Vibrant Punjab, which once ushered in the Green Revolution, is today living in a dazed stupor, as 67 per cent of the rural households in the state have at least one drug addict, a survey conducted by the Department of Social Security Development of Women and Children reveals.

Once an affluent village in the heart of Amritsar, Maqboolpura has come to be known as a widow village, where almost every home has lost some of its male members to the menace of drugs.

Drug use-related infection of AIDS took its toll on Sukhwinder’s world as he lost his wife and second daughter due to complicated illnesses. His first son died two years ago. He lost all the six close friends who were constant companions of his dreadful revelries. “Now, I am awaiting my turn,” he weeps, regretting the doom he has brought upon himself and his family.

The quintessential scene of sturdy Punjabi munda (boy) sporting a bright pagadi (turban) with high-spirited life and charm moving in a tractor around lush fields in the village is, unfortunately, a picture of distant past.

The vibrancy of Punjab is a myth. Here many sell their blood to procure the daily dose of deadly drugs, and even beg on the streets to keep their addiction alive.
Sukhwinder was once caught by the in-charge of a blood bank when he visited the hospital on the pretext of donating blood. He was there, in fact, to sell it. His skeletal structure, pallor, deep sunken eyes, and particularly the multiple injection marks on his arms, gave him away, telling the tale of his notorious past.

It is no longer a question of a village getting ruined. The whole state is in the stranglehold of this death trap, informs Virsa Singh Valtoha, ruling party MLA of Valtoha constituency that covers 96 km of Indo-Pak border.

The youth gets lured into the world of drugs by first tasting bhuki, which grows like wild grass and is freely  available in the fields. Or they take to gutka or tobacco pouches. “The problem is of epidemic proportions in the rural areas where unemployment is rampant,” says a patron of Punarjyot, an NGO working for the welfare of youth in Punjab. “A whole generation is as good as destroyed. Not a single village is without its score of drug addicts.”

Once hooked, these young men graduate to cough syrups like phansydril and corex, proxyvon, dormant 10, diszepham tablets. From this stage they proceed to more potent menu of opium, charas, ganja, mandrax, smack, heroin, lizards’ tails and many more substance like quaint application of shoe polish, smelling petrol and consuming iodex spread on bread to get that heady feeling.

“Peer influence, thrill-seeking and curiosity about drugs were found to be the main factors promoting drug abuse among youth,” observes an official of Spring Dale Senior School, Amritsar. With the consumption of intoxicants having become so widespread, an introduction to them is treated as some kind of a coming-of-age ceremony by most boys.

“The story of drug addiction begins out of a curious adventure and soon turns into a sordid nightmare. I have seen my colleague’s son selling off his land and his wife’s jewellery to procure his daily dose,” says Surinderpal Singh, an English teacher at a Government School in Narli. “It is really frightening as he sometimes asks his mother to shoot him dead so as to save him from this misery.”
The spread of AIDS, too, is linked with the malady due to sharing of syringes. The death rate and the HIV positive cases have increased in Punjab by 60 percent due to widespread use of intoxicants. Reports say within just one year, hundreds of youth have lost their lives to drugs.
The scene is worsening rapidly, say medical experts and social workers, due to the growth of illegal chemists shops which supply some of these substances. Even a small village with a population of about 2,000 has at least 10 to 12 chemist shops, without any physician or general practitioner nearby.

Abetting crime
Many chemists are surviving on addicts as they provide drugs without prescription. “Injectible intoxicants, tablets and syrups are easily available,” says Dr Deepak Sahdev, of EMC Super Specialty Hospital, Amritsar. Even many of the so-called de-addiction centres are actually proving to be addiction centres, which are found to be supplying drugs to the inmates.

“A misconception about de-addiction is being spread in Punjab. Some advertisements are ridiculously promising de-addiction treatment with laser therapy,” says  Debasish Basu, Professor, Drug De-addiction Centre at PGIMER (Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education & Research), Chandigarh. Most of the privately run de-addiction centres lack basic facilities and are there just to mint money.
Media reports have often revealed inhuman treatment of drug addicts at private de-addiction centres where they are even chained and beaten mercilessly on the pretext of maintaining discipline.
In Mohali, near the state’s capital Chandigarh, a youth was recently dumped at the gate of his home by the workers of a local de-addiction centre after he developed complications. He later died. The Punjab government has, of late, started cracking down on the illegal de-addiction centres.
The increase in the number of patients at the Drug De-addiction Centre, PGIMER, Chandigarh, is alarming, as the institute gets 1,000 patients at walk-in clinics every year, while 500 patients are registered at OPD. Nearly 250 addicts are treated as in-patients. “Drug addiction is a chain reaction. One person ropes in others,” explains Dr Basu.

Vikas, a student of BBA, narrates the dreadful experience he underwent when he had tried to rope in his batchmates to attend a seminar on the issue. “They sought smacks as compensation,” says Vikas. “They also forced me take some pills bought from a nearby chemist. Thank God, somehow I managed to escape.”

Even women are not safe from the tentacles of drug menace. Kirat, a dental student in Dera Bassi, says many of her friends sail through the strain and pressure of examinations with the help of “some stuff.” A cigarette break is quite normal. “Pills are also available if you need more stamina,” she says. Girls also prefer cough syrups to other forms of intoxicants, thanks to young peddlers, mostly boyfriends.

Smuggling and narco-terrorism are a natural corollary of drug menace. Many addicts  make a few quick bucks through drug-trafficking. “We are able to confiscate only 10 percent of the smuggled narcotic substances. Rest is consumed by the market,” reveals a senior official at Narcotic Control Bureau in Chandigarh. There are recoveries occasionally, but they are not even the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
For many long years, Punjab was only a transit point for drugs from Afghanistan,  which were being routed to other parts of the world or metropolitan cities in the country. Punjab is no more just a transit point. “Drugs from Afghanistan are being sold in Punjab itself and the youth in large numbers have joined the cartel,” says the Narcotic Control Bureau official.

Drug trafficking has increased by at last 30-40 percent in the last year ever since cross-border civilian movement increased between India and Pakistan. Late last year in Phagwara, the Punjab Police recovered 50 kg heroin worth Rs 250 crore in the international market from a young brother-sister duo. “International drug cartel and terrorists operating from neighbouring countries are actively involved in drug smuggling,” says a police official.

The Narcotic Control Bureau, Chandigarh, reports that the number of registered cases of heroin smuggling has increased since 1998 and over 1,200 kg of the drug seized during the same period. The report also suggests that cocaine, charas, methaqualone, ephedrine, acetic anhydride and amphetamine are some of the other drugs flowing in. Opium pilfered from certain parts of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh where cultivation of poppy is licensed is also making its way into Punjab.
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Social activists, however, believe that a police-level drive is not sufficient to deal with the situation. “War against drug menace cannot be fought in a piecemeal fashion,” believes Manjeet Singh, professor, Department of Sociology, Panjab University. “People have to wake up to the gravity of the situation. Punjab takes pride in its Green Revolution, we need another revolution now to rid the state of  drug menace.”
For Sukhwinder Singh, however, it is already too late.

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