How Punjab fights war on drugs

What led to its moves, how they have fared: from STF to death penalty proposal to drug tests for govt staff

Written by Varinder Bhatia | Chandigarh | Updated: July 6, 2018 10:22:43 am
Police dispose of drugs in Amritsar in October 2016. (Express Photo by Rana Simranjit Singh/File)

Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh has written to Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh asking for an amendment to the NDPS (Narcotic Drugs & Psychotropic Substances) Act to bring in the death penalty for first-time offenders, besides declaring that government employees must undergo drug screening. These are the latest in a series of government moves against drug abuse. A look at these moves,and what led to them:

The latest trigger

There has been a reported spurt in suspected drug-related deaths. In one video circulated through social media, said to be from Faridkot, a woman is seen wailing next to the body of her son who lies in a heap of garbage, a syringe still stuck in his veins. In another video, a man is mourning his son’s death in Amritsar. This has led to protests from Opposition leaders of AAP and, to some extent, the BJP. Reports suggest that 23 people died in June from drug addiction, while Health Minister Brahm Mohindra says there have been only two drug-related deaths in the last year. Amarinder has ordered a probe into the deaths. Before the 2017 election, he had promised that he would eradicate the drug menace within four weeks.

Before the protests

TASK FORCE: One of the CM’s first moves after taking office was to set up a Special Task Force against drugs, headed by ADGP Harpreet Sidhu. On deputation to CRPF and engaged in anti-Maoist operations, Sidhu was called back. Given a mandate “to prepare and implement a comprehensive programme to eliminate drugs from the state”, the STF began by arresting thousands of peddlers. Within four weeks, the CM and the STF chief announced that the pre-election promise had been fulfilled, and supplies choked. Amarinder has said that the last one year has seen the “arrest of 18,977 drug peddlers and treatment of more than 2 lakh drug victims”. Nearly 4,000 NDPS Act convicts and 5,610 undertrials are lodged in prisons across the state. Over the last few years, Punjab has continued to have one of the highest conviction rates, over 82%, in NDPS Act cases.

COMMUNITY PROJECT: In March, the government launched its Drug Abuse Prevention Officer (DAPO) project, a community participation programme. Thousands volunteered registered as DAPOs to raise awareness. The government announced that all its employees (around 3.5 lakh) and elected representatives of Panchayati Raj institutions (around 1 lakh) would be ex-officio DAPOs. This exercise is yet to be evaluated.

BUDDY PROJECT: The STF designed a “buddy project”, aiming to include all schools and colleges for student awareness. It has been launched in Tarn Taran and STF officers say it will soon be extended across the state. The project involves teachers, students and parents; the STF aims to have teachers trained by a special team comprising STF officers, psychologists and education officers.

OOAT: Short for Outpatient Opioid Assisted Treatment, the programme has seen the health department open 81 OOAT clinics for opium and heroin addicts since May. Addicts are given buprenorphine, an opioid substitute.

CONFISCATION: In its first meeting last year, the Cabinet had decided to enact the “Confiscation of Drug Dealers Property Act”. This could not take off as the home department informed the CMO that a similar provision already exists under the NDPS Act.

Battles within

Sidhu’s appointment caused heartburn in Punjab Police as he was to report directly to the CMO rather than the DGP. Matters heated up after the STF arrested a police inspector, Inderjeet Singh, in June 2017 in Kapurthala, allegedly with heroin, and questioned then Moga SSP Raj Jit Singh. After this, there was a visible slowdown in the STF’s work, and Sidhu was placed back in the police chain of command, reporting to the DGP. In April this year, the government issued a notification excluding the STF from the RTI Act. Last week, Raj Jit Singh was transferred out of Moga, while DSP Daljit Singh Dhillon and a head constable were arrested and dismissed. Majithia probe

The Punjab & Haryana High Court asked the STF to study a report by the Enforcement Directorate on the alleged involvement of former SAD minister Bikram Singh Majithia in a drugs case, and submit its own report on the matter. The STF report was handed over to the government, which set up a two-member panel comprising DGP Suresh Arora and ACS (Home) Nirmaljit Singh Kalsi. They have submitted their views to the court in a sealed cover.

The new moves

The Cabinet has announced that it would recommend the death penalty for first-time offenders under the NDPS Act. Under Section 31A, introduced in 2001, a provision already exists for the death penalty for second-time offenders. However, after a division Bench of Bombay High Court held the clause “unconstitutional”, another amendment in 2014 watered down Section 31A. This could come in the way of Punjab’s proposal.

After Amarinder announced a mandatory dope test for government employees, their unions across the state have demanded that politicians including the CM should get themselves tested first. The government has around 3.5 lakh employees and it would be a tall order to get all of them tested.

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