What hit this land of plenty? 75% of the youth. Every third student. 65% of all families in Punjab are in the throes of a sweeping drug addiction. With little or no hope in sight. Sai Manish examines why
No way out A young addict, after chasing smack at Angarh, in Amritsar
Photographs by Tarun Sehrawat
Tehelka, Special Report
THE RAILWAY barrier in Angarh, a locality in the border city of Amritsar in Punjab signals the end of too many things. The rule of law. The reign of sense. The fear of crime. The signs of normality. Even the divisions of caste. Drug and crime infested as the area is, people dread having to wait at the barrier for a goods train to pass. Here, 13-year-olds are killed in Diwali gambling brawls; 20-year-olds run amok looting shops in a drug-crazed haze; illegal explosive factories abound near LPG godowns; and Kashmiris peddling ‘sulfa’ — an inferior quality of brown hashish — share the streets with young intravenous drug users (IDUs).
Angarh is just one symptom of a monstrous crisis: a staggering 75 percent of Punjab’s youth is hooked to drug abuse, a figure the state government itself submitted to the Punjab and Haryana High Court in 2009. One out of every three college students in the state is on drugs. In Doaba, Majha and Malwa — regions particularly affected — almost every third family has at least one addict. Every kind of drug is readily available here. From smack, heroin and synthetic drugs to over-the-counter drugs like Buprenorphine, Parvon Spas, Codex syrup and spurious Coaxil and Phenarimine injections. This is a state where 30 percent of all jail inmates have been arrested under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act and the DGP has kicked up a political storm by saying it is impossible for him to control the flow of drugs into his prisons. But the sharp irony is, this matters little because, like Angarh, scores of other towns and villages in Punjab are more notorious than any prison cell.
Walking down a street in Angarh, littered with the implements of death — empty Coaxil bottles, dirty syringes — 16-year-old Sukhbir Sandhu asks for Rs 30 to go home to his mother. “I’m not begging,” he says, “just asking. I am a Jat. I have a big farm and I’ll pay you back when we meet next.” Sukhbir, the son of fairly well-to-do farmers, is dressed in Nike shoes but has scabbed finger tips, puss-filled injection holes on his arms, and the skin peeling off under his eye and his jittery disposition belie his age. When he is refused the money, he almost starts to cry. He finally admits he wants to buy a bottle of AVL (Phenara mine maleate) injection fluid, a drug meant to treat respiratory failure in cattle and horses. What has the potential to resurrect a dying horse, he says, is good enough for him to feel like a living man. If we give him another Rs 100, he says, he will get us the best in town. Still refused politely, Sukhbir leaps across a gutter to what should have been a public toilet but is now a preserve of those who chase smack and inject AVL all day long. In that filthy cocoon, he finds solace chasing fumes off a silver foil in the company of those who “caught him young”.
Boys like Sukhbir are the reason why someone like 35-year-old national body building champion Satbir Singh, who runs a gym in Angarh, swears nothing can be done to save the future of Punjab. “There were 40 of us in the same class in school. Only 10 of us, including me, are alive today. All the others died doing smack and prescription drugs,” he says.
The stories of the boy and the man are intertwined. At 16, Sukhbir will be lucky to be alive on his 21st birthday. At 35, Satbir has already seen his classmates die of violent overdose. At 16, the boy can’t visualize a future beyond his next hit. At 35, Satbir is looking to groom future bodybuilders who, true to the Punjabi gene, will grow into ‘real men’. At 16, the boy has already been slashed twice on his face by blades tied to the underside of a fellow addict’s middle finger. At 35, Satbir throws a mock punch at his 4-year-old son who is trained enough to block it and punch back, clearly daddy’s boy. At 16, the boy walks every day from his village to Angarh not to look for work or buy books but to get his next kick. At 35, Satbir came back to this criminal town to start a gym because there was no work to be found and even his sporting credentials had failed to bag him a Punjab police job. (The Rs 4 lakh bribe he was asked to cough up was beyond his means at the time.) At 16, the boy’s father often wishes his trouble-making son would just never come home. At 35, Satbir is a son who had prayed his father would come home alive from the 1971 war.
This then is the tale of two Punjabs. Satbir is a remembrance of a land once described by Alexander the Great in a letter to his mother as “the land of a leonine and brave people, where every foot of the ground is like a wall of steel, confronting my soldier” and Swami Vivekananda as the “heroic land first to bare its bosom to every onslaught of the outer barbarians.” A land — until only recently — of farmers and soldiers whose stereotype was proud resilience.
Sukhbir, on the other hand, is the face of Punjab as it stands in the first decade of the 21st century. Fading and injured.
So what explains this monstrous drug upsurge in the state that is leaching it of its sap? Some of the answers are as shocking as the statistic.
DURING THE recent election campaign in Punjab, Election Commission officials were shocked by the scale of drug abuse in the state. It is not just bhukki or doda, traditional poppy husk, commonly used in the Doaba and Majha belt or opium derivatives like smack and heroin that were in circulation. What really staggered the officials was the carte blanche political parties had given to chemists to distribute dangerous prescription drugs to youth in a bid to woo their vote. A week before the polling date, EC officials had impounded close to 3 lakh capsules along with 2,000 injection vials of Avil and 3,000 cases of Recodex cough syrup. Chief Election Commissioner SY Quraishi described the drug haul in Punjab as “unique”, surpassing any state he had ever conducted elections in.
“The political patronage given to drugs during these elections was shameful. At a time when drug abuse should have been a raging social issue, leaders of the state used it to swing votes,” says Sartaj, a Punjabi folk singer, whose lyrics often focuses on the need for the youth to give up their will to self destruct. None of Punjab’s political stars from the Congress, the BJP or the Akali Dal made even a pretence of confronting the scourge. “Why would they?” says Dr Rajesh Kumar, who retired as the medical superintendent of the Civil Hospital in Moga. “Many of the chemist shops are flourishing with the help of politicians and addicts rarely want to face the truth. To pose tough questions and force them to introspect is a risky proposition for leaders.”
‘I have seen those I shared a classroom with die violent deaths due to drug overdoses. Out of a class of 40, only 10 are alive today,’ says Satbir Singh
There are other reasons for Punjab’s slide to hell. Primary among them is its proximity to Afghanistan and Pakistan and its geographic position on the global drug trade map. Almost all of Punjab’s 553 kilometre border with Pakistan is guarded by electric fencing. With typical sub-continental illogic though, this has scant effect because the switch is turned on only after 6pm in the summer and 4pm in the winter. The border also has some riverine gaps but this is not the preferred route of smugglers. It’s much easier to work the intermittently activated electric fence.
If you drive to Khemkaran, a border outpost in the drug torn Tarn Taran district of Punjab, the road signs do not display India’s habitual cautionary note: ‘Do not drink and drive’. Instead, here they read: ‘Don’t do drugs and drive.’
On the way to Khemkaran comes Khalra, a small border town widely known as a major transit point for the drug trade. Local farmers here say most of the drops take place under the nose of the Border Security Force (BSF) and the Rangers on either side of the fence. The most common conduits are the drainage pipes that run across the strip of no man’s land in between the two nations and women couriers. BSF officials claim they have occasionally caught local women with 50 kilos of heroin stitched to their bodies but, by and large, women are chosen as couriers because they are subjected to less stringent checks.
Not all of this is new. There has always been some inflow of opium, smack and heroin from Pakistan and Afghanistan. But the US war in Afghanistan has choked access to lucrative western markets, driving more of it into India. Curiously too, many locals and paramilitary officials in these towns speak of a 1975 Intelligence Bureau report that had warned that Pakistan, newly defeated in the 1971 war, would hit back at India through many clandestine means, one of which would be to convert the youth of Punjab into drug addicts who could then be “trampled down like a weed”. People here believe that sustained programme is now manifesting itself.
A BSF officer at Khalra has a startling story. “We conducted a recruitment drive in Tarn Taran district in May 2009. There were 376 vacancies. More than 8,000 young men turned up. But most of these men were so unfit and weak we had to come back with 85 vacancies. The drug abuse here will soon have serious security implications. These boys’ forefathers were strong and healthy so their bodies could bear the brunt of the intoxicants they abused. But these boys are different. Constant abuse has eroded their bodies. Put all four generations together and you will notice the difference. It doesn’t take much to imagine what the current lot of 5-10 year olds will look like if they fall into the drug trap.”
- Press Note – Civil Society Against Drugs (phoolka.net)