More than two weeks after the body of 22-year-old Balwinder Singh was found in a garbage dump with a syringe stuck in his hand near his home here, his family members on Monday burnt down his clothes and other belongings. His mother Kashmir Kaur says she could not bear to look at the stuff anymore as it reminded her of Balwinder.
He died on June 23. Several suspected drug-related deaths have been reported since then in Punjab, but it was the viral video of Kashmir crying uncontrollably next to the body of her son lying in the rubbish dump that has triggered the fresh outpouring of public anger over drugs in Punjab. In reaction, a rattled state government, that claims to have brought the drug menace under control, wrote to the Centre seeking an amendment in the law to provide death penalty for first-time drug offenders too, and announced mandatory drug screening for all government employees.
No government functionary has visited Kashmir yet at the one-room accommodation at Kotkapura in Faridkot where she and her husband live. The Punjab government does not count Balwinder’s death as drug-related.
Holding her son’s framed photo, Kashmir weeps saying how good-looking he was. “People would tell me he could not be my son, he could not belong to our caste (the family is Dalit). I remember how he would fight with me about this.”
The parents say they had known for the past nine months that Balwinder was addicted to drugs, having caught him and a friend taking drugs at home. “I scolded him and tried to stop him, but he did not listen,” says Kashmir.
Father Madan Lal, who works as a cook, says Balwinder kept promising to stop taking drugs. “I regret not taking him to a doctor instead.” Recently, the 22-year-old, who did odd jobs, had also broken off his engagement.
Neither of them knows what drugs Balwinder took, only that he injected himself with something. In the video that went viral, the crowd that surrounds Kashmir keeps saying he had died of consuming “chitta (synthetic narcotics powder)”, which is a very popular intoxicant among drug addicts in Punjab.
Recently, the parents sent Balwinder away to his married sister’s home in Bahadurgarh in Haryana, to keep him away from drugs. They thought he was there, till his body was found. Later, the sister told the family that Balwinder had left her house a day earlier, insisting on going home.
While Balwinder only studied till Class I, his two sisters, aged 22 and 18, had to drop out because of financial issues, says Madan Lal. Both are now married.
A shopkeeper just outside the lane where the family stays says, “Many youngsters take drugs here, some heroin, others medicines. But it is not openly done. The government has no control.”
In state government records, there have been only two “confirmed” drug-related deaths in the last one year, since the Congress came to power. Punjab Health Minister Brahm Mohindra told The Indian Express many cases go unreported as families are wary of attracting social stigma.
But Kashmir and Madan Lal say they don’t want to hide how Balwinder died. “We are saying it openly he died of drugs because we want this menace to end. It is taking lives of people,” says Madan Lal.
Kotkapura City Police Station officials first began proceedings under Section 174 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), which deals with death under suspicious circumstances, and as the outrage grew, registered a case under Section 304 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) for culpable homicide against unknown people. “His post-mortem was conducted. We are waiting for the viscera report,” a police official said.
Around 60 km away lived Bohar Singh (35) and Buta Singh (38), the two people whose deaths the government acknowledges as drug-related.
Sitting at their home in Varpal village in Ferozepur district, Bohar’s wife Baljit Kaur says he had been addicted to opioid substitute drugs for 20 years. The sub-district hospital at Zira, where he died on March 7, has records to show Bohar had a history of drug addiction.
“He fell into a pit when he suffered a seizure because of the drug. He was taken to hospital by the villagers and he died the next day,” says an impassive Baljit, adding that she realised Bohar was an addict two months into their wedding two decades ago. “I tried to convince him several times to give up, but he never listened.”
Baljit works in a local school as the mid-day meal cook, earning Rs 1,200 a month. All her three children are school drop-outs. The youngest, Daljit, all of 10, is also working, doing odd jobs with a deejay group. Her elder son Satnam (17) works at the home of a former sarpanch of the village. The third child, a daughter, was married off at the age of 16.
Satnam says they struggle to make ends meet. “I owe around Rs 50,000 in all to several people, both for my sister’s marriage and for my father’s bhog.”
Sounding much older than his age, Daljit says he knows his father died “from taking pills”. “We will never touch drugs… We only know how we are living.”
The other person whose death is identified as drug-related was Buta Singh. Like Bohar, he died at the Zira sub-district hospital. However, there is no record of his drug-addiction history at the hospital.
Buta’s family, at Basti Buta Singh Wala village, says they too didn’t know. “He fell unconscious in the field. We took him to the local hospital and he died there,” says a relative, Sukwinder Singh.