Punjab’s drug problem is no secret. The malaise is so widespread that any government’s first response should have been to take steps to choke the supplies, and second, to implement health policies to address the high prevalence of addiction to a range of narcotic substances. The Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party government in the state did carry out a crackdown. But as a special investigation by The Indian Express using 6,500 FIRs obtained under the RTI Act has established, the exercise could not have been more flawed. There were few arrests of suppliers at the top of the food chain. The focus was on addicts, or small-time peddlers, found to be in possession of minuscule amounts of drugs. Thousands were stuffed into overcrowded jails whose medical infrastructure was so hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with the sudden influx of drug-dependent inmates that 174 people died in jails through 2014 and 2015, at the shocking rate of one every four days. Not just that, the jails are themselves retail points for drugs, as seen from the rich hauls of narcotics and syringes during periodic raids. Meanwhile, supplies of a range of drugs have continued to flood the state — from Pakistan, and other Indian states. While the Punjab government is right to point to this, it is clear that without well-entrenched networks, these supplies cannot continue to enter the state and get distributed with such ease. So while Punjab demands that the Border Security Force do a better job and asks other states to clean up their act, as a border state, it must urgently take its own steps to address the situation.
It is unfortunate that the SAD leadership chooses to deny the seriousness of the problem, viewing any discussion on it as a political campaign against it by its opponents ahead of the 2017 elections. The party has launched a counter-campaign to “protect” the youth of Punjab from what is being described as a conspiracy to defame them. This can only fuel the speculation that the party has something to hide, whereas in fact, the Congress can hardly point a finger at the present ruling combine, as it has to take equal responsibility for letting the problem grow unchecked during its terms in power.
It is clear from the staggering numbers of arrests – nearly 30,000 in two years — that drug dependency is not isolated to a few pockets. Drugs are claiming a huge social cost in Punjab, once counted among India’s most prosperous states. Not only has the government not yet seriously attempted to assess the problem in its entirety, as farming becomes less and less profitable, the absence of initiatives to help youth in a largely agricultural state equip themselves with education and non-farming skills is worsening the situation. It is still not too late. The next government, regardless of the party in power, must give top priority to the issue.