A fresh political controversy over Punjab’s drugs problem broke out this month after a study by the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER), Chandigarh reported estimates of the numbers of opioid addicts from two separate surveys, which varied greatly — but which were both minuscule compared with the staggering number that Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi had claimed five years ago.
One survey in the study, Epidemiology of Substance Use and Dependence in the State of Punjab, estimated there were 1.7 lakh addicts; the other made a nearly 60% higher estimate, at 2.7 lakh. The smaller of these numbers represents 0.89% of Punjab’s adult population; the larger, 1.41%. By contrast, in a speech in Chandigarh in October 2012, Rahul had claimed that 70% of Punjab’s youth were hooked to drugs.
So what are the Congress, AAP, and SAD saying now?
SAD president Sukhbir Badal said the PGI study had exposed the “anti-Punjab conspiracy” of Rahul and Arvind Kejriwal who, Sukhbir demanded, must explain why they had defamed Punjabis by branding them as drug addicts. The AAP leadership called the study a “farce”, and insisted the problem was far wider. The Punjab Congress has claimed that the PGIMER data “refers to the current situation in the state, which has been controlled in a big way” by the Amarinder Singh government.
However, the two surveys in the PGI study were, in fact, conducted between November 2015 and April 2016, when the SAD-BJP government was in power. The Congress formed the government in Punjab in March 2017. It set up a Special Task Force to eliminate the menace of drugs, but it has so far largely followed the SAD-BJP government’s style of throwing drug users in jail.
Beyond being the trigger for controversy, what is the significance of the PGI study?
The scale, to begin with — this is the first study that covers all 22 districts of the state. Of the two surveys, which were carried out using two different methodologies, the Households Survey was conducted from November 27, 2015 to April 9, 2016. After interviewing 13,295 respondents and studying 6,398 households, the survey estimated the number of those currently addicted at 1.7 lakh.
In the Rapid Assessment Survey (RAS), conducted between June 10, 2016 and January 7, 2017, only addicts and their peers were interviewed. After interviewing 6,600 respondents (300 from each of the 22 districts), the survey concluded 2.7 lakh people were addicted to opioids in the state.
The PGI study also concluded there were more than 22 lakh alcohol-dependent persons and nearly 16 lakh tobacco dependent persons in Punjab at the time of the surveys.
But where did Rahul’s “7 out of 10” figure come from?
Rahul is said to have based his 2012 speech on a study carried out six years earlier by Prof Ranvinder Singh Sandhu of the Department of Sociology of Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, on a direction from the then Governor of Punjab, Gen (retd) S F Rodrigues.
However, Rahul’s statement actually stemmed from an affidavit that the Punjab government filed in Punjab and Haryana High Court in 2009 — it said that 70% of Punjab’s youth were hooked to narcotics, and mentioned the GNDU study as the source of the information.
Prof Sandhu, however, says that his research, Drug Addiction in Punjab: A Sociological Study, was misquoted. He says he had interviewed 600 drug addicts, 73.5% of whom were aged 16-35, and could, therefore, be categorised as “youth”. This had been misquoted to claim that 70% of Punjab’s youth were addicts, Prof Sandhu says.
OK, other than the GNDU study in 2006 and the PGI study a decade later, has there been any other research on Punjab’s drugs problem?
Yes. In 2015, the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment commissioned a study by the addictions support and rehabilitation NGO Society for Promotion of Youth and Masses (SPYM) and the National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS).
The Punjab Opioid Dependence Survey, carried out in 10 districts between February and April 2015, estimated the number of opioid dependent individuals in the state at 2.32 lakh — that is, roughly halfway between the numbers estimated by the two surveys in the PGI study. The SPYM-AIIMS survey, carried out in association with the Union Health Ministry, took on board 3,620 opioid dependent individuals at government-run de-addiction centres, and found heroin to be the most common opioid drug.
So, what is to be made of these widely varying numbers from different studies?
Prof Sandhu is clear that both the AIIMS and PGI studies were “lopsided”. The PGI study did not cover slum areas, even though a fifth of the urban population lives in slums, and addiction is directly proportional to poverty and illiteracy, he said. The AIIMS study, on the other hand, took sample data from de-addiction centres, which remain out of reach of the economically weaker sections. “Only a comprehensive household survey can give the exact magnitude of the drug problem,” Prof Sandhu said.