“DO MUNDE si ik reh gaya (I had two sons. Now I have just one),” says Shamsher Singh, fighting back tears as he recollected the pain and anger he felt on the day his son Gurdeep succumbed to drug overdose in February.
“Akalis had planted the tree of drugs, but it has spread more during the present government’s rule,” he adds, seated on a cot in his house in Jhaneri village of Sangrur district.
With 114 last year and 13 in this first quarter of this year — drug overdose deaths continue to rattle Punjab at a worrying rate. From the brother of a councillor, son of a daily wager, kabaddi players — many have fallen prey to the scourge in Punjab.
In the 2017 Vidhan Sabha elections, drugs was one of the major issues. The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) went to polls amid sharp criticism from opposition parties over the matter. SAD stood third, winning only 15 seats in the 117-member Vidhan Sabha.
Lok Sabha Elections 2019 | Polling schedule, results date, constituency-wise election results, key candidates
This election however seems different. Except for a passing reference by SAD and its president Sukhbir Singh Badal attacking Chief Minister Amarinder Singh over unkept promises despite taking oath on the Gutka Sahib, the issue of drugs has not been a major talking point during campaigning.
But among families who have lost their loved ones to this menace, the issue is one they cannot forget.
In the centre of Talwandi Sabo, which houses one of the five temporal seats of Sikhs — the Takht Damdama Sahib — Jeevan Khan, a daily wager, talks about the loss of his 23-year-old son Lovepreet Babbu in July last year.
“He managed to get votes due to this, but nothing happened,” says Khan, referring to Amarinder’s pre-poll promise of “breaking the backbone” of the drug racket in four weeks.
“Policemen are themselves hooked to drugs, how will they stop this. Drugs are sold more now as compared to Akali regime. And if someone indulging in drugs is caught, 10 people come to get that person off the hook,” says Khan, seated in his small house, a stone’s throw away from the heritage house of Bhai Dall Singh, who had welcomed the tenth Sikh master Guru Gobind Singh in Talwandi Sabo in 1706.
A photo of Congress candidate Amarinder Singh Raja Warring is pasted on Khan’s door. “Persons hired to put such posters may have pasted one here also. Otherwise, no politicians have so far come to us. They probably fear the questions we will ask,” he says, his other son Yousaf, a Class XII student, by his side. Yousaf refers to the promise to end drugs as a “flop wali gal” (one that flopped)
Nearly 20 km from Talwandi Sabo, in Raman Mandi, Puneet Maheshwari, who is a Congress councilor, is sitting in his shop with Congress flags. On a wall, he is seen in photographs with Warring and Congress president Rahul Gandhi.
Puneet’s brother Kamal Kant Maheshwari died of drug overdose in June last year. Puneet says that Kamal, who died at the age of 24, got hooked to chitta and to wean him off it, his family stopped him from pursuing his undergraduate studies in commerce. Puneet says Kamal had given up drugs after treatment at a de-addiction centre in Malerkotla, but claims he was “forcibly injected” with chitta in Talwandi Sabo by an addict who had met him at the de-addiction centre.
“The Punjab government alone cannot do anything. Drugs are coming from Haryana. The border is just 7 km from this place,” adds Puneet.
“After my brother’s death, we formed a committee and with the help of local police, launched a crackdown on people involved in drug trade. But now its back to the usual. Police cannot do much. The drug peddlers bring in chitta in small quantities like 1 gram. What will you do if someone is caught with 1 gram? The accused gets bail as it is a very small quantity and starts peddling again,” he says.
In Rupa Heri village in Sangrur district, Avtar Singh points towards the photo of his son, who died of suspected drug overdose in December last year. The photo is surrounded by a number of trophies and awards he won as a kabaddi player. “Balkar was 15 and around 70 kg when he started participating in open kabaddi tournaments,” says Avtar, a marginal farmer in Rupa Heri.
“He had a disturbed marriage life. And he was not living here in the village. I do not know whether he was hooked to drugs or not. I spent a lot on him to make him a good kabaddi player. Those who own much more land could never spend that amount on their children,” says the farmer.
In Jhaneri, a mix of elderly villagers and youth sit at a common point. They are all praise for MP Bhagwant Mann and fervently criticise Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “People have not forgotten demonetisation, which made the common man suffer in bank queues, and the GST which hit small and medium traders. People also see through tactics like surgical strikes. Why do such things happen when there are polls? We have not been able to decipher PM’s ‘Mann ki Baat’ in five years,” says Gurjit Singh, a youth.
Asked about the drugs issue, he says, “This is a issue related to our village so we cannot say anything on this. You can talk to the family.”