As if asking the Centre to amend the NDPS Act to include the death penalty for first-time offenders was not bad enough, the Congress government in Punjab has declared it mandatory for its employees to undergo screening for drug use. That the announcement was made by Chief Minister Amarinder Singh before the details have been discussed or drawn up exposes it for what it is — a hasty, knee jerk and misplaced political response, like the one before it, to a pervasive and deep problem.
Both decisions came after an uproar in the state over several deaths of young men in June attributed to drug use. Clearly, both were the easiest way to demonstrate to political opponents and the citizenry that the government was seized of the seriousness of the issue and was dealing with it. The courts will likely pronounce the last word on this, but on the face of it, mandatory drug testing of employees, that too without reasonable suspicion, appears to violate the fundamental right to life and personal liberty. As problematic is asking for death penalty for drug peddlers convicted for first time offences under NDPS.
Had the Punjab government done some due diligence before deciding to seek an amendment to the NDPS Act, it would have found Section 31 A, introduced in 2001 to provide for mandatory death penalty to repeat offenders. It was watered down by a 2014 amendment to reflect a Bombay High Court judgment that held it “unconstitutional”. The NDPS Act is also notorious for being misused, making the inclusion of death sentence risky. At the moment, more than 15,000 drug peddlers are in Punjab jails, many for being in possession of minute quantities. Even if less than half of them are convicted, no government should be proposing that thousands of men be hanged to death.
Instead of political firefighting, Punjab should focus on cracking down on big suppliers. It ought to propose tighter controls at the border through which some of the narcotics enter, and draw up a comprehensive health-based policy to deal with addiction, including an enumeration of addicts, the long term follow-up of patients who manage to shake off the habit at government de-addiction centres, a rehab plan for such patients, plus education and awareness building from a young age. Drugs cannot be eliminated completely, but their existence can be managed such that fewer people get addicted and the social and economic costs are minimal. As a first step, given the present levels of political and public outrage, this may be the right time for the government to persuade people to stop hushing up addiction as a social stigma, and approach a health facility at the first signs of it.