At 32, Bableen Kaur is one of the youngest of Punjab’s 40 drug inspectors. On March 29, the day her colleague Neha Shoree was shot dead at the Food and Drugs Administration Department’s Kharar office near Mohali by a chemist whose licence she had cancelled 10 years ago, Kaur was in the adjacent room.
“I was scheduled to meet Neha that day. I was with a senior when we heard a loud noise followed by a scream. We found Neha lying in a pool of blood,” Kaur, who joined as a drug inspector in 2011, says, leaving the District and Sessions Court in Amritsar at 10.30 am, where she was appearing for a hearing.
“It’s not new for us to receive threats,” Kaur adds, claiming they often find themselves at the mercy of a mob or facing the threat of false cases. “But I never imagined we could be killed for doing our job.”
She talks about just that day in court, facing an accused whom she held in 2015 for storing substandard drugs in his shop. “A drug inspector is a one-man army. In this case, I collected samples from the shop and filed a case in court. Again, I am the prosecutor because a drug inspector is a notified assistant public prosecutor. I will also be appearing as a witness. We face the accused at every hearing.”
Even police have it easier, Kaur adds. “One official raids the place, another investigates. Then there are public prosecutors to face the accused. Drug inspectors do it all, and alone.”
Kaur, who comes from a family of Armymen, says she tries not to let the fear of accused “developing a sense of enmity” bother her. A pharmacy postgraduate, she says she chose to become a drug inspector even as most of her batch-mates settled abroad.
Punjab’s drug inspectors keep a check on manufacturing and sale of all kinds of drugs mentioned under the Drugs and Cosmetics Act. Considering the drug menace in Punjab, the number of inspectors were increased from 10 to 18 in 2007, and then to 40 in 2012.
Currently, Kaur has 17 ongoing cases, has to appear in local courts 15 to 20 times a month and the high court at least thrice a month. Most of the time she travels alone, returning home late at night, including from raids close to the India-Pakistan border — the “riskiest” assignment, down what is known as the Drug Highway. As travel expenses are not routinely reimbursed, she often takes the bus. Of the five drug inspectors in Amristar, she is the only woman — and only one of six in the entire state after Shoree’s death.
Kaur’s office is a mere 10-minute drive from the District and Sessions Court. An old Public Works Department building in the Civil Surgeon Office has been renovated to make space for the drug inspectors.
Around 10:45 am, she enters her small office that has two almirahs and a desk. While a small idol of Lord Ganesh sits on the desk, a portrait of 18-century Sikh martyr Baba Deep Singh hangs on the wall.
Opening a register, Kaur takes down details from letters sent to her by colleagues, the police and court. “Apart from our various roles, we are also data entry operators and clerks. And if this is not enough, our department is also notified as a Public Information Office under the RTI,” she says.
At 11.30 am, an officer arrives from the Vallah Police Station to get Kaur’s opinion on if an accused from whom illegal substances were recovered in 2015 could be prosecuted under the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act.
While instructing the officer to come back the next day to collect her notings, Kaur says, “Often we become party to cases which we never even initiated. Police don’t understand that the NDPS Act cannot be invoked in all cases. They want us to work as per them, but we have to follow the rules.”
Soon after, three other officers, from the Kotwali, Verka and Chharheta Police Stations, arrive to meet Kaur to discuss a 2015 case in which a chemist had committed suicide.
After the officers have left, Kaur says she was initially booked for abetting the suicide, explaining this is one of the risks that comes with the job. “We had raided the pharmacy and returned. Later we came to know the chemist had committed suicide. Everything about the raid was on record. But police did not even summon us before registering an FIR against my colleague and me,” she says, adding that the case is over.
Soon after that episode, Kaur says, “I received a letter from another chemist saying he would commit suicide if I didn’t stop proceedings against him….”
Around 1.30 pm, Kaur gets a phone call from the head office asking for data on all seizures in the last four years. Hurriedly she finishes her lunch and gets to work.
Later, on her way to Rani Ka Bagh locality to conduct a raid at a pharmacy, Kaur talks about one of her worst experiences, when she was held hostage for nearly two hours by a chemist’s family at his house in Bhikhiwind along the border Tarn Taran district. Since then, Kaur, who is unmarried, says, her family as well as friends keep calling to check on her.
She herself has become more cautious. Around 15-20 people visit her every day, from those coming with tip-offs to those applying for licences, Kaur says. “I see everyone with suspicion. I don’t know who might be carrying a weapon.”