What hit this land of plenty?

No way out A young addict, after chasing smack at Angarh, in Amritsar
No way out: A young addict, after chasing smack at Angarh, in Amritsar

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 (Phenaramine 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.

The clean man Satbir, 35, at his gym in Angarh; (Right) a farmer at the border town of Khalra
The clean man: Satbir, 35, at his gym in Angarh; (Right) a farmer at the border town of Khalra

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.”

Hydra-headed (Left to Right) Disposable syringes being distributed to addicts, and two IDUs at a rehab in Tarn Taran; users chasing smack in Angarh
Hydra-headed: (Left to Right) Disposable syringes being distributed to addicts, and two IDUs at a rehab in Tarn Taran; users chasing smack in Angarh

DANGEROUS NEIGHBOURS and porous borders are only a fraction of Punjab’s drug problem. India itself contributes massively.

Eight hundred kilometres inland is the magnificent fort town of Chittorgarh in Rajasthan. Chittorgarh is the largest of the seven districts in Rajasthan — Kota, Bhilwara, Jhalawar, Baran, Pratap Garh and Udaipur — that have licensed poppy fields. Small farmers here live off the modest income from the yield. March is bloom time. Before lancing the poppy bulbs for their precious sap, farmers pray to Goddess Kali. They believe it is she who imbues the ‘white gold’ with its extreme addictiveness and its capacity to enhance sexual prowess.

(There is a salty axiom that runs along the highways between Rajasthan and Punjab. If a man eats bhukki along with a cup of tea, he will be capable of sex like an Arab. The day bhukki leaves him, his wife will too.)

Between Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, which also has some licensed fields, over two lakh small farmers are involved in the cultivation and extraction of poppy, through a process meant to be strictly monitored by the government and Narcotics Control Bureau. In 2012, in Rajasthan alone, 48,857 new licenses were issued to farmers for cultivating an area of 53,588 hectares. Some of this produce goes to Ghazipur in UP and Nimach in Madhya Pradesh for deriving alkaloids to be used in pharmaceuticals. A large portion of it is exported in the highly competitive global market.

‘Drug abuse has eroded these kids’ bodies. Their forefathers were different. Put four generations together And see the contrast,’ says a BSF officer

Dalbir is a Jat farmer with a land holding of three acres. It is small but enough to absorb his disenchanted son, whose frustration is sublimated by the hard demands of working the field with his father. The issue gets trickier with the children of more affluent farmers and landlords, whose holdings are tilled by labour from UP and Bihar. “These rich boys are abusing drugs heavily because there are no new jobs for them and they always know they have the option of going back and supervising their farms if nothing else works out for them in life. This makes them reckless and bored,” says Dr Rana Ranjit Singh, a psychologist in the government hospital in Tarn Taran.

The ironies intensify. The poor quality of education in Punjab makes its graduates incapable of making the cut for the few high-skill jobs that are available but leaves them too over-qualified for jobs considered “menial” for the children of economically self-sufficient farmers.

Redemption Ex-Punjab Police ASI Hardeep Singh at a rehab in Taran Taran
Redemption: Ex-Punjab Police ASI Hardeep Singh at a rehab in Taran Taran

“Education is not getting people jobs in the state and that hurts the self esteem of the youngster. The poor quality of our education system is completely out of tune with the job market. Given their easy supply in the state, drugs become the first crutch of support for all the alienated youngsters floating around,” the doctor continues.

The disturbing thing is neither wealth nor caste makes a difference. Drugs have become the great leveller in Punjab. This becomes painfully apparent in Maqboolpura, a predominantly Scheduled Caste locality on the outskirts of Amritsar.

Nothing distinguishes this urban village from the richer Jat households ravaged by drugs, except the ravage is more plainly evident here. Maqboolpura has informally been written off by successive administrations as an insurmountable law and order problem. Every general store here sells strips of prescription drugs. Young children — their fathers lost to chronic depression and drug abuse — line the roads selling eggs and cigarettes to bring home the few rupees that will keep the family going. Old men stack sacks of opium husk at the back of their huts and a steady stream of addicts place ten rupee notes in their hands to get their hits. In a vast vacant ground, idling school children and college kids huddle together gambling. Illicit liquor is brewed in many households as a means of sustenance. Any attempt to curb this provokes violent resistance.

Vijay Pal Singh, 32, one of the most prosperous men in the village, reluctantly agrees to play guide. As we walk through the village, labour from the surrounding areas pours into the bylanes of Maqboolpura, looking for its stock of illicit lahaan (liquor). They take a shot, put a handful of salt in their mouths, buy their smack and leave.

After much coaxing, Vijay Pal Singh, himself an abuser, agrees to talk. His story encapsulated some of the reasons why every strata of Punjab is ransomed so heavily to drugs.

Pal Singh’s grandfather acquired considerable land in 1947, when he came across after Partition. Asked why he had started wasting himself when he came from an affluent family, Pal Singh twists his moustache with a flourish then says proudly, “My father told me, puttr, relax. We have so much land, why do you want to work?”

Did he want to work we asked. “Show me the work and I will do it. Do you see any work around here?” he parried.

As the conversation went on, it became clear that Pal Singh was trapped in a crushing dead end. He felt too superior to his neighbours to start any enterprise in the village; he dreamt of going to the UK except he has a criminal case against him that prevents him from traveling; and he has no dreams for his children as the land is enough to sustain them. “My father’s property will take care of my children,” he says. “And you know one thing? I believe more in the grace of my father than I believe in the grace of god.”

THE RAMPANT abuse of synthetic and prescription drugs completes Punjab’s concentric circles of hell. The epidemic of young people in the state injecting drugs like Coaxil directly into their bodies has hardly any parallel elsewhere in the country. Not even in Manipur, the other Indian state ravaged by addiction.

Illegal chemist shops in Punjab have regularly been raided but most of them end up re-opening within a few weeks. Civil society activists, in fact, are now calling for a government takeover of all chemist shops for a better regulation of the sale of opiate-based drugs.

But the dark codicil to this story is that the cure has itself become a menace. As Punjab’s drug addiction crisis has snow-balled, a flourishing business of illegal de-addiction centres has sprouted across the state, dreaming of robust balance sheets constructed on people’s emotional distress.

De-addiction clients Vijaypal Singh with his family at Maqboolpura
De-addiction clients: Vijaypal Singh with his family at Maqboolpura

But before that particular muck-pit, there are others. On 12 January 2012, the Union Cabinet passed a policy that is likely to have deep implications for Punjab. The National Policy on Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NPDS) announced by Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee recommends production of “Concentrate of Poppy Straw (CPS) in India by a company or body corporate” citing reasons of maintaining “competitiveness in the global market,” where countries with mechanised opium growers like Australia are stealing a march over traditional suppliers of Opiate Raw Material (ORM) like India.

Secondly, it stipulates that the private sector can now be allowed production of alkaloids from opium. At present this is produced only in Government Opium and Alkaloid Factories (GOAFs).

“The entry of the private sector might be good news for other states where opiate-based drugs are used for palliative care. But unleashing corporate interests in Punjab is like throwing a sick man to a pack of hungry hounds. It is common knowledge that pharma companies are already pushing their opioid anatagonists and agonists to illegal de-addiction centres,” says Dr S Krishnan, the Medical Superintendent of Adesh Hospital in the town of Muktsar. “This policy will only amplify the scope of their business.”

Hardeep Singh, 30, recuperating at the de-addiction centre at the Civil Hospital in Tarn Taran, is a textbook example of why everyone is eyeing the de-addiction business as much as those who profit from the addiction.

Punjab’s politicians seem hardly inclined to give direction to the State’s young Population, pushing many into a web of dangerous drugs

Singh’s calm demeanor and inspirational speeches belie the hell he’s been through. Hardeep was an assistant subinspector with the Punjab police. A Federation Cup shotput champion. And a national championship runner-up. A young sports achiever. “Someone else urinates for me, I do the drugs and pass the test,” Hardeep says. “Top officials used to come and say they want medals at any cost. In fact one of them even told us to take muscle injections. After they gave me that stuff, I was throwing 17.10 metres which was good enough to get me into the team for the Junior Asiad. But when I got out of National Institute of Sports, I started feeling very itchy and nervous. I’d fly into a rage for no reason. I confided to my friends one day and they told me I needed something to calm down. They gave me smack. I did it from 1994 till 2011. I left sports in 1996.”

His nightmare years did not end there. A few years later, Hardeep’s brother committed suicide. “I locked myself up in a room for three months and just kept injecting myself. I sent my wife and son to the UK, took a gun and decided to put my mind and my brother’s soul at rest forever.” Driven by drugs and sorrow, Hardeep then took an extreme step — a personal detail he’d like to leave off record — and went to jail for it. When he came out of jail, he decided to admit himself to a de-addiction centre to show other kids not to follow the road he’d been on.

Hardeep is now on a regular dose of Buprenorphine to control his craving for opiates. For the rest of his life, Hardeep will be on Tidigesic, the brand name for Buprenorphine manufactured by Sun Pharma. This gives him a feeling of mild euphoria; the drug in his brain mimics the rewards of using repeated doses of smack. So Hardeep thought he would surface from his double dip into smack and synthetics a free man. Instead, he finds his drug story has come full circle. “It is difficult if I don’t take Tidigesic. It gives me a mild kick. Without that I would go back to smack.”

Buprenorphine is given to civil hospitals and all those who enrol at the de-addiction centres have to buy their quota every day. Sun Pharma’s tablet comes comparatively cheap, with a strip retailing for Rs 25. But clearly, over the next 20 years, if Punjab’s spiraling drug crisis is not stemmed, a market of opiate dependant addicts will end up spending billions of dollars on buying both the malaise and its cure.

Despite his disappointments, Hardeep is lucky to be at a government hospital where facilities are far better than the hundreds of illegal and notorious de-addiction centres that have mushroomed all across Punjab. There have been instances of deaths inside these centres, with addicts being tied up or beaten under the pretext of anger management. Some private homes in Amritsar promise laser therapy as a treatment for addiction at a cost of Rs 2 lakh. Other de-addiction clinics promise to “implant chips” in the body that would permanently cure addiction. Families of addicts are willing to buy hope at any cost.

De-addiction clients Young boys at a private rehab Ek Prayas, Muktsar
De-addiction clients: Young boys at a private rehab Ek Prayas, Muktsar

“Most of them are at their wits’ end with the addicts and want them off their hands or genuinely believe money can fix their problem. Many families cannot bear to keep them in the house anymore and they become a social disgrace. The need of the hour is to treat them compassionately not make them into a cynical business proposition,” says Adesh Krishnan.

TEHELKA VISITED many private de-addiction centers. Ek Prayas (An Attempt), located in Muktsar town, by the railway track, epitomised the breed. Ek Prayas, which houses 30 addicts in one big room, with each paying Rs 6,000 a month, was conspicuous by the absence of any windows.

The owner refused to allow any interaction with the addicts at the centre but revealed that every day brought an average of two new requests, willing to pay any amount for admission. Conversations with other staff revealed that if there was a shortage of space, those who pay less are shifted to other newly opened centers in need of these “de-addiction customers”.

Punjab’s towering addiction inferno is creating its own monster twin: the de-addiction sweatshop. The chances of relapse are so high, private centers expect — in fact count on — half their customers to come back.

Frantic families care nothing for quality control; they just need the outlets. Their search for quick fix solutions, therefore, is creating a demand for de-addiction like never before. Responding to the opportunity, fly-by-night de-addiction centers and unprofessional labs are mushrooming everywhere. Punjab has 98 private de-addiction centres; only 17 of these are duly registered. It is impossible to assess how many illegal ones exist as well. (TEHELKA tried to visit Josan De-Addiction Centre in Maqboolpura but was firmly kept out by its functionaries.)

The gravity of Punjab’s multi-faceted drug problem has long crossed its tipping point. But no figure of authority in the state seems to be interested in stemming its free fall. If he were writing now, what would Alexander the Great tell his mother about this once famed land?

Sai Manish is a Correspondent with Tehelka.


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