Sometime around 2017, the 17-year-old son of a wealthy owner of a construction company in Srinagar started smoking cannabis. Over the course of the year, he began spending more money by the day and soon no amount was enough, so he sold his laptop and phone for money to buy the drug. That is when the family became aware of his drug addiction.
For months after that, the family attributed his weight loss and failing health to his addiction to cannabis but as he became more prone to aggressive behaviour, resorting to violence at home when denied money, he stole and sold his sister's laptop. This prompted the family to dig deeper into what was going on in the boy's life.
After forcefully calming him down, they initially discovered marks on his arms and soon enough, used syringes hidden in his room. The teenager, described by his cousins as a diligent student with soft manners who never had trouble at home, had been hooked on heroin.
The teenager is one among the several hundred who have been pouring into the two prominent drug deaddiction centres in Srinagar city, the government-run Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS) hospital and another in the police control room complex, seeking help in recovering from heroin addiction.
Heroin takes over cannabis
The Kashmir Valley has had a history of drug use long before the armed conflict erupted in the late 1980s. Traditionally the Valley has had few cases of alcohol and heroin addiction while cannabis comprised the most commonly used drug with some social acceptance as "charas pends", locally designated spots where cannabis was smoked by addicts, were neither unheard of nor hidden.
However, in recent years more and more individuals are reporting heroin use. According to a study released early this year by the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, about 4.91 percent of the state's population uses opioids, mainly heroin, with about 2.1 percent dependent on the drugs while 1.31 percent of the population used cannabis with about 0.12 percent dependent on it. The Jammu and Kashmir state, it said, also had about 25,098 individuals who reported injecting drugs.
A doctor treating cases of addiction, wishing anonymity, said that there were several more heroin users for every reported case of an addict. In counselling sessions, according to the doctor, recovering addicts reported that several users in their villages congregated at designated spots to shoot up heroin.
"Almost every patient has claimed to have been abusing heroin along with more than a dozen, sometimes two dozen others," he said, giving an indication of the magnitude of the problem on ground.
According to the doctor, more and more heroin addicts have come to the deaddiction centres since 2016 and most of the addicts dependent on heroin were natives of south Kashmir. Doctors at both deaddiction centres said that an addict on average used about 1-2 grams of heroin daily even as their intentions were never to try the drug after their first attempt.
The drug's withdrawal symptoms are as severe and have prompted the centres, not equipped enough to brace the surge, to restrict the intake capacity. The police-run drug deaddiction centre has seen about 1,300 cases of addicts, mostly dependent on heroin, this year alone.
According to Yasir Hasan Rather, associate professor in the government medical college's psychiatry department and a supervising doctor at the deaddiction centre in SMHS hospital, at least 2,468 cases of addiction were reported at the centre between December 2018 and June 2019 while 492 were admitted to the hospital for brief periods of time. "About 90 percent of all those who had come to the centre were addicted to heroin," he said.
Yasir said that unlike the past where addicts took to smoking cannabis to ease off stress in their lives, the new cases being reported had taken to using heroin for no apparent immediate factors causing stress. The conflict also has little to do with it as well, but simply for recreation "despite being well settled". "Earlier we would see mostly adolescents, now we have addicts in their late 40s and 50s with no prior history of drug abuse," he said. "They are first time users and started with heroin."
As addicts increasingly report of having injected heroin, Yasir warns: "It's a ticking bomb, that will lead to infections, diseases, and deaths."
Difficult road ahead
Accustomed to counter insurgency and curbing protests for the better part of the last three decades in Kashmir, the task has been uphill for the police administration for several reasons that include the society's lack of faith in and cooperation with the police while societal taboos and sheer ignorance further aggravating the problem.
In one instance the family of an adult addict refused to believe medical reports cited by the police that indicated multiple substance abuse and instead attributed the presence of intoxicants in the addict's bloodstream to heavy smoking, a police officer said.
On its part, the police across the Kashmir Valley have cracked down on drug dealers, mainly peddlers of cannabis, leading to a shortage of cannabis but addicts have reported to doctors that heroin remains easily accessible.
The police have graded heroin users as they do militants " categories A+++ and A++ have been designated to heroin peddlers and heroin addicts who take to peddling to meet their cravings " but they fear taking action. "First, the situation is such that people do not trust us," the officer said. "After prolonged and heavy use the health of these addicts who turn peddlers is so fragile that if they die in custody, we will have trouble on the streets. It will be exploited by separatists."
Issues of social importance such as corruption, violence against women, and sexual abuse of children to name a few, have long been pushed under the carpet by separatists and their sympathisers as the conflict raged in Kashmir, fearing reports on such issues would bring disrepute to or divert attention from the separatist movement and instead blamed the Indian rule for all social evils or that all social evils would be dealt with "once Kashmir is independent".
After three decades of militancy, independence hasn't been achieved but the Hurriyat seems to have woken up to issues of Kashmir alongside the "Kashmir issue". Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, soon after returning from New Delhi where he was summoned by the National Investigation Agency, has started to regularly and ever more forcefully take up a range of public issues from violence against women to drug abuse to the return of displaced Kashmiri Pandits.
In a recently organised daylong seminar on drug abuse and women's issues, the Mirwaiz was quoted by the Rising Kashmir as having said that there was a need "to work on the ground to curb the growing menace" while other speakers at the event did not hesitate in expressing willingness to cooperate with the administration.