By: Jyotsna Mohan Bhargava
‘If your kid just drinks, you should be relieved’. Words from a mother of a teenager who went on to describe how teen parties in the capital went beyond alcohol. ‘Forget a round of shots’, I was told, ‘drugs at these parties are as common as iPhones the children carry’. Many urban families are struggling to stay sane. Both parents working late hours, constant travel and stress all contribute to a family that is increasingly substituting love with money that buys not just latest gadgets and clothes but also candy, though not quite from a candy store.
There was a time when Goa was notorious for drugs. Now, it seems you don’t need to go anyplace; you just need to be found. Cocaine has become as much a part of some social circles as a glass of wine. I am not just referring to the page 3 crowd; twenty-seven per cent of call centre workers in the country reportedly use drugs. Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh today have the highest number of schoolchildren using drugs; politicians claim 70 percent of the youth in Punjab are addicts.
Over the years, parties in the capital were (and still are) notorious for open drug use and hotel washrooms became meeting points for peddlers and their clients. It might not be as blatant anymore, but it certainly is more prevalent; doorstep delivery any time of the day or night. Natural opiates like hashish and marijuana are generally limited to teenagers on a budget; in many parties, these are akin to smoking a cigarette. What has revolutionised the market are more lethal synthetic substances, popular with a generation that now experiments with cocktails; simply put, a mix and match of drugs.
Mumbai is taking it a snort further. Until a few months earlier, a new and cheap drug Mephedrone, commonly called meow meow was legally available and could even be ordered online. A poor man’s cocaine, this white powder cost just Rs.150 per gram. With almost 80,000 children between the ages of thirteen and sixteen believed to be addicted to meow meow, the drug was banned in February this year. But the market for Cocaine, which costs Rs. 3,000 for a gram is only expanding, with increasing popularity amongst the rich and glamourous. It is also one of the most dangerous, laced with unknown substances, including powdered glass. The purer it is, the higher it costs. If you want the best, you could even be paying Rs. 20,000 per gram.
The nation’s drug problem is not a phenomena exclusive to the well-heeled. Nowhere has the problem exploded more than in Punjab, where lines between urban and rural drug abuse have merged. Declining agricultural incomes and increasing unemployment have made drug addiction a culture in the state.
Consider this – as far back as 2009, a submission to the Punjab and Haryana High court by the Department of Social Security, Women and Child Development stated that there was at least one drug addict per family in rural Punjab. That number is likely much higher today. Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Badal says Punjab is being unnecessarily maligned and that drug usage is because of smuggling from across the border. The United Nations 2011 drug and crime report says India is the largest consumer of heroin in South Asia, contradicting claims that Punjab is only a transit point for drugs coming in from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
For long, social activists in Punjab have pointed to links between politicians and the drug mafia in the state. Campaign money for elections allegedly comes through sale of drugs, just as votes are bought by gifting narcotics. In 2014, the Enforcement Directorate questioned Punjab Revenue Minister and Sukhbir Badal’s brother-in-law Bikram Singh Majithia in a Rs. 6,000 crore synthetic drug racket. Majithia says he is being framed, there were attempts to mysteriously transfer the interrogating officer to Kolkata. But the High Court intervened, the officer stays for now and the investigation remains, well, ‘ongoing’.
An MLA of Majithia’s Akali Dal party and former national hockey captain Pargat Singh paints a grim picture of the state saying 80% of the youth are addicted to drugs. Perhaps the biggest jolt to our senses comes from Health Minister Surjit Jayani, who wants compulsory drug tests in schools from class 8 onwards. That would be on children as young as 13-14 years old. The minister has honestly and openly said what many speak behind closed doors; students use drugs, with deals made in school canteens.
In 2013, almost half of all cases registered in India under the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act were from Punjab. Prime Minister Modi acknowledged the enormity of the problem when he asked the youth to have courage to say no to drugs. But in a state where drugs are easily available, rumoured with political patronage, it’s easier said than done. BJP President Amit Shah was to launch a campaign against drugs starting with a rally in Amritsar. The rally never happened. Shah did come to Amritsar, but only for a closed-door meeting to discuss party affairs. Not surprising, since BJP is an ally of the Akali Dal in Punjab.
Forget the politics for a moment. Forget even the physical damage to an addict. Its the economical and emotional impact that is testing society. Children with a normal upbringing are becoming monsters and taking to crime to get money for their next fix. Increasing cases of chain snatching and petty crime are reported across many cities in Punjab. Women going for morning walks have stopped carrying their mobile phones, let alone wear any jewellery. Things have become desperate in some households; a father was physically assaulted with a chair by his own child for being refused money. Many other families have been ruined, spending money they cannot afford on rehabilitation, although the few centres that do exist are hardly professional. Those who can, are sending their children abroad to get them out of this quagmire. But the poor have nowhere to run or hide.
Two kilometres from Amritsar lies Maqboolpura. It’s also infamously known as the ‘place of widows and orphans’; a neighbourhood that has lost as many as four hundred men to drugs, while others wait aimlessly for their next dose. Other villages in Punjab have an equally horrific story, but they remain below the radar and perhaps always will. The National Sample Survey Organisation has put its hands up, saying it does not have the expertise to survey drug abuse.
More than 20,000 people have committed suicide due to drug addiction related issues in the last 10 years. That’s seven deaths a day! We need to treat this as the epidemic it ominously is, translate words into action, reign in the politics, and stop turning a blind eye to problems our society and culture doesn’t like to admit to. Else rural or urban, we’ll soon be facing India’s lost generation. It may already be too late.