ON A burning afternoon, streaks of sweat staining their uniforms, four policemen stand around a motorcycle outside a faded wooden door in the middle of a narrow alley. Chasing a tip, they had hoped to find a cache of drugs in Kartar Singh’s house but what they find instead is something that leaves them glaring at each other.
ASI Tarsem Singh shakes his head, his hooded eyes revealing little. The voice of Lakhbir Singh, whose wife is a panchayat member, cuts through the rising buzz. “Some (expletive) addict has stolen the spark plug of their motorcycle,” he said. What he leaves unsaid: the spark plug may be sold for the next fix.
In this comic strip lies the tragedy of Boot — the “village of drug addicts”, with 47 FIRs registered under the NDPS Act in 2014, the most from a single village, according to records accessed by The Indian Express under the RTI Act from 14 of 28 police districts in Punjab.
On the edge of Kapurthala, 2 km off the highway to Pathankot, Boot is the grey that lies between the black-and-white police story of a crackdown that has “eradicated drugs from this village”.
The dreaded word here is “parcha”, or the FIR. And the most common one: Chitta, an adulterated powdery mix including heroin or smack.
The Indian Express knocked on doors of at least 10 families whose members were named in those 47 FIRs, and who are either still in jail or out on bail. And while doing so, this newspaper came across at least 10 people lying on the street, visibly intoxicated, their bodies like the shrivelled wheat stalks on the fields that border the village.
The local police chief, Sub-Inspector Ranjit Singh, is not surprised. Nor are teachers at the only school in the village with around 900 students.
After all, they say, this is a village of “very poor” farm labourers, most of them from the Scheduled Caste Rai Sikh community. Where “illiteracy is a big problem” and the only medical facility is a “time-pass doctor” who operates from a tiny room without a board, mainly handing out medicines for common ailments.
The official figures appear to support that claim: the 2011 Census shows that Boot has a population of 3,757, with a barely 50 per cent literacy rate in a state that averages 75.84.
But the chorus of allegations outside the nameless provision store tells another story: the police have “wrongly branded” the village; they pick up innocent people to meet their monthly targets; they catch only those who cannot pay bribes; and that some of them even join the villagers in using drugs.
“There are black sheep in every department. I don’t say that policemen are not involved, but you will find only four-five per cent who are hooked on to these drugs,” says SI Ranjit Singh, the Station House Officer (SHO). “I joined this police station on April 19 and we have locked up all the main smugglers of this village. There is a lot of control on this village now.”
But then, the police version is only one chapter. The Boot story starts with Jaspal Singh, who introduces himself simply as an “addict”.
“Why do you need a list for this? Knock on any door in this village and you will find someone who has been arrested on drugs charges,” he says.
At 32, Jaspal is a father of four and earns around Rs 1,000-Rs 1,500 every month doing odd jobs, mostly as a waiter at banquet halls. Records show he has two cases against him in 2014 under the NDPS Act, for using and peddling drugs.
Jaspal insists he got addicted to drugs just last year, while spending six months in Kapurthala jail before being released on bail. But the sunken eyes, stained teeth, rust-coloured lips and needle marks betray a deeper addiction.
Then there’s 22-year-old Baldev Singh, watching Jaspal with a wry smile. Perched on the edge of a charpoy outside a one-room, fly-covered house, Baldev is well-built with clear eyes, shiny white teeth and neatly trimmed beard.
“I don’t do drugs, don’t drink and haven’t smoked even a beedi in all my life,” he says, turning to check on his wife and one-year-old son inside.
Baldev was a melon farmer, tilling a piece of land in partnership, selling his share of the produce by the roadside, and leading “a happy life”. Until March 27, 2014.
“That day, we were all sitting at home discussing a cousin’s wedding when my brother came in, then quickly left. We knew he was an addict. Within minutes, a group of policemen barged in, started searching the house and said they had recovered a packet of drugs. They asked for my brother, then ordered me to come along. I begged with them to let me go, but they said they had a target to meet. Later, we came to know that I had been charged with storing 5 kg of poppy husk,” says Baldev, who is now out on bail.
SHO Singh has an explanation. He suggests that the 47 FIRs of 2014 is an indication of the ground situation “for about a year”. “(But) now, there are a few instances where people who are facing criminal cases are taking revenge and taking names of even those who are clean,” says Singh.
The Boot narrative, meanwhile, blurs and builds in the stories of Sonu, Ninder Singh, Baldev Singh Sr, Sarwan Singh, Gurmeet Singh and Sukhwinder Singh. It’s the same script playing in loop.
Baldev Singh Sr, a former panchayat member, says he was a victim of political vendetta; Jeet Kaur, wife of Gurmeet Singh and mother of Sukhwinder, claims police “planted” tablets at her house; and Sonu says the police “do drugs with us and will now know what the pain of addiction is”. Ninder Singh is still in jail and Sarwan Singh, the “time-pass doctor” was “in town to purchase medicines”.
The lingering image, however, is not from 2014 but a year later when police took away Kulwant Kaur for possessing drugs. “Please save my daughter, she did no wrong,” says Kaur’s mother-in-law, Jeet Kaur, tears streaming down her face. Jeet’s son Kala Singh is also in jail on charges of possessing drugs.
But yes, Boot has a future, too. And that lies in the chorus of “Sat Sri Akal” that greets you at the local school.
“The children are too small to understand what’s happening. But some of them do come and tell us that there is no money at home because their fathers are either addicts or drunkards. We teach them slogans against addiction and ask them to repeat them aloud at home,” says Ratneev Singh, a teacher in the elementary section.
At the adjoining high school section, with students up to Class 10, Monika Arora, the principal, says, “There are many children who come from the families of addicts. But we counsel them regularly, ask them to make a difference in their homes. We ask them to lead a good life. They understand.”