Outside three border villages in Khemkaran in Punjab’s Tarn Taran district, newly minted ‘drugs-free’ signboards have come up as the latest weapon in Capt Amarinder Singh government’s sputtering war on drugs. Fifteen more villages are awaiting completion of paperwork to get signboards that declare them “nasha-mukt pind”.
The first three signboards came up at Mastgarh, Manawa and Kalanjar Uttar villages on July 14 amidst much fanfare. Khemkaran MLA Sukhpal Singh Bhullar and IG, Border Range, S P S Parmar attended special events organised to mark the occasion.
In its rush to prove that its response is not dwarfed by the drug epidemic, the Congress government had last month issued orders to district authorities to declare villages/wards under their jurisdiction free from drugs. The tag guarantees panchayats Rs 5 lakh as incentive for purchasing sports equipment.
Asked if a village can be declared drugs-free even when an addict is still under treatment, Surinder Singh, SDM for Patti and Bhikhiwind sub-divisons, says, “Once an addict is on medicine he is no longer considered an addict, then he is a patient.” Bhikhiwind is so far the only sub-division in the state to have declared villages “nasha-mukt”.
As part of the initiative, Drug Abuse Prevention Officers (DAPOs), who were introduced just three months ago and began field work post-training only on June 1, have been asked to file reports regarding the addicts in villages under them, including the total number and the number on medication, as well as the date by which the village can be declared drugs-free.
Based on these reports, the DSPs step in through intelligence sleuths and local police, and the SHOs of the police stations concerned are asked to probe and verify that a village has no addict or peddler. Simultaneously, meetings of panchayats are held to pass resolutions declaring villages “nasha-mukt”.
Interestingly, the three-step verification process excludes the district medical authorities completely. Dr Shamsher Singh, Civil Surgeon, Tarn Taran, says, “We are giving out no such certificates. We are involved in treatment, our job is harm reduction. Supply reduction is the job of police. We are fully involved in the movement as far as treatment of patients sent to us goes, but there are no 100 per cent guarantees.”
Backing the move, Senior Medical Officer, Patti, Dr Gurpreet Rai, says, “It’s a good initiative. Even if a village is 99 per cent okay it can be declared drugs-free so that it becomes an example for other villages… The government’s view is that even if there are one or two cases and they are under treatment at a proper place, that means that for the time being that village is free from drugs.”
Says Khemkaran MLA Sukhpal Singh Bhullar, “We want to motivate people… Till now only negative news came out of this area, for the first time positive news is coming out… The villages that have been declared drugs-free are feeling proud, and others are coming forward on social media.”
However, the officers trained to do the job under the DAPO programme, launched on March 23 by the CM from Bhagat Singh’s village, are themselves not sure of its effectiveness. “While the government is spending on radium boards to declare villages drugs-free, it has not bothered to clear payments of Ground Level Trainers engaged as part of the DAPO programme, who were promised Rs 1,000 for a day’s work in drug-affected villages,” says Prabhdeep Singh, who worked as one such trainer.
A few days back, a DAPO member, Gurbaksh Singh, was thrashed by men he accused of selling drugs in Chima Kalan village. In a similar case, DAPO member Dilbag Singh was beaten up by alleged drug peddlers in his village Sabrah and spent nearly two weeks in hospital.
Pradeep Singh Sandhu, a DAPO programme member, says, “The entire village knew Dilbag was targeted by smugglers. Police passed if off as personal enmity. We don’t sit in ACs or have gunmen, we go out among people. Police ask us to point out peddlers and addicts, but the culprits are tipped off and they come for us.” On the initiative to declare villages drugs-free, Sandhu says, “August 15 is approaching. All these initiatives are on paper to make the administration look good.”
Also, as of now, there is no review system to check if a village has slipped after getting the “nasha-mukt” tag.
Not far away from these villages, at border outpost Mianwala Uttar, a BSF company commander oversees as four jawans scan a tractor that has just rolled in from Gate no. 157. Men, returning from their fields across the fence, are frisked — everything from their lunch boxes to their slippers, and the tractor’s fuel tank to its silencer and battery, are checked. As the company commander inspects a pesticide spray pump, he points to a half-inch cavity. “Even this is enough to slip contraband through. Aap kahan tak check karoge?”
SDM Singh says they have not ruled out villages slipping back to drugs. “We are in the first step, if things come to our notice later, we will consider.” The first review of the initiative is scheduled for July 26, at a meeting to be chaired by Nodal Officer (DAPO) Rahul Tewari and IG, STF, R K Jaiswal.
Meanwhile, at Patti, signboards for declaring more villages “nasha-mukt” are painted and ready. Darshan Singh Dhillon, owner of Dhillon Fabrication Works, says he can deliver signboards for 10 villages at a moment’s notice.
As the administration vies for the drug-free tag, a 28-year-old heroin addict in Khemkaran claims this push is only coming at their cost. “I got a call from an SHO just 5 minutes back… He told me if I quit taking pills from the centre, he will file an FIR against me. I feel like dying.”