CALLING its assessment of the Punjab drug problem exaggerated, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment has rejected the findings of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences on drug abuse in Punjab and has decided to ask AIIMS to conduct another “proper nation-wide survey”.
Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment Vijay Sampla told The Indian Express, that the ministry did not accept the AIIMS report because it was “not authentic”. He said the numbers were far higher in other states as compared to that of Punjab.
In what raises questions of conflict of interest, Sampla was, two months ago, appointed as the president of the BJP’s Punjab unit — the state goes to polls early next year.
Ironically, the AIIMS report on Punjab that Sampla is trashing — released by the state government earlier this year — was commissioned by his Ministry. The report estimated that in Punjab, there are 2.3 lakh opioid (heroin, opium, doda, phukki) dependent people and four times as many opioid users. It also estimates the annual expenditure on opioid drugs in the state to be about Rs 7,575 crore.
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“Of the total 2.75 crore population in the state, the report estimated that over 8 lakh are drug users. The numbers include those who consume alcohol even once a week. The actual addicts are only over 2 lakh which is less than one per cent of the state’s population,” said Sampla, adding that the sample size taken for the AIIMS study in Punjab was very small.
“We will appoint AIIMS as the nodal agency to conduct a proper nation-wide survey on drug abuse,” he said.
Ministry officials said it will take at least a year to complete. The last such study was done 15 years ago and it put the country’s opioid dependent population at 5 lakh.
Sampla said one indicator of the existence of a large number of addicts is rave parties. “Punjab ko badnam kiya jaa raha hai (Punjab is being maligned). You will never hear of a rave party in Punjab. It happens in Delhi, Mumbai, Goa and Himachal Pradesh. There is no issue in Punjab, it is the creation of the media,” he said.
The AIIMS report states that it “is the first ever study of its kind in Punjab which provides an estimation of the size of opioid dependent population in the entire state, using a scientifically valid and time-tested methodology”.
Associate Professor Dr Atul Ambekar of AIIMS, who was the main author of the report, said data was collected from 3,620 people across 10 districts that represent 60 per cent of Punjab’s population. All of these were opioid addicts and not those who consume alcohol, he said. He added that the same methodology was used by AIIMS to conduct two UN-commissioned studies: a 2007 study on the injecting-drug users in Punjab and a more recent one on drug abuse in Male, Maldives.
The AIIMS Punjab report also indicts the state by pointing out that while 80 per cent of those surveyed tried to give up drug use, only 35 per cent received any kind of help including from NGOs and religious groups. It also found that 16 per cent of these received medical treatment while merely eight per cent got in-patient treatment or were admitted to de-addiction centres.
The survey revealed that majority of case-load of psychiatrists in Punjab comprise patients with drug addiction problems. It estimated that among men in the age group of 18-35 years, four in 100 are opioid dependent, mainly on heroin, and about 15 in 100 could be opioid users. Moreover, 55 per cent of the opioid-dependent people are from rural areas.
Dr Ambekar said, “We found a very large population of opioid addicted people in Punjab. Most of these were under-served as adequate treatment services were not available for them. An average de-addiction centre catered to just 250 people in one year. Even if we open hundred such centres, it will serve only 25,000 addicts a year. At this rate, it will take 10 years to just admit all of the 2.5 lakh addicts even for a few weeks whereas most people relapse.”
He added that the report had recommended an approach that goes beyond opening de-addiction centres and providing for clinics that offer long-term outpatient treatment where medicines can be administered under supervision.
“We were told that they would follow up with us while taking our recommendations forward. So far we have not been involved; if they have done something, we are not aware,” he said.
Sampla said that last year on June 26, International Drugs Day, the Ministry sanctioned 26 new de-addiction centres for Punjab. He, however, added that the issue of drug abuse in Punjab is not different from that in the rest of the country.
“If I am in politics, what is my role? My role is how to increase the honour of my country. If honour increases, the problem will get over. Our duty is nation first. If you malign the nation, strip yourself naked, others will call you naked,” said Sampla.
The drugs menace in Punjab is a major vote plank, as was evident in the recent controversy where Opposition parties blamed the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP government for attempts at censoring the movie Udta Punjab that is based on this issue.
This month, an investigation by The Indian Express, based on 6,598 FIRs registered under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substance (NDPS) Act in 2014, showed how Punjab’s crackdown on drugs had, in effect, turned into a war on its addicts. It found that at least 42.4 per cent of arrests were for possession of 5 gm or less of heroin, 100 gm or less of intoxicant powder, 50 gm or less of opium, 1 kg or less of poppy husk and 100 or less capsules or tablets.