No landing in sight for addicts in Udta Punjab

Rayan Naqash
Even though drug problem was the biggest election issue when Punjab voted a new assembly in 2017, the state continues to be in the grip of addiction

It was a news report of yet another drug bust and arrest that Punjab has got used to €" and shrugged off €" over the last few years. Saraj Singh's arrest in February, however, showed how deep the drug problem ran and how political patronage was feeding the menace that has laid a whole generation to waste.

Saraj was declared an absconder is 2015 but managed to get elected the sarpanch of Valtoha in Tarn Taran district, and when he was nabbed, he was carrying 1.5kg of heroin.

"Drugs run politics now," a volunteer with the state government's drug abuse prevention programme in the Tarn Taran district said. A clampdown on the drug trade is impossible because of the "give-and-take relationship" between the dealers and politicians, he said, on condition of anonymity.

According to the activist, Saraj was considered close to the Shiromani Akali Dal but was also photographed with Congress's Amarinder Singh at an election rally.

The drug problem was the biggest election issue when Punjab voted a new assembly in 2017. "I will break the back of the drugs menace within four weeks" of coming to power, Amarinder had thundered at an election rally.

Two years after taking over as the chief minister, Amarinder is accused of failing to fulfil the promise.

Drugs deaths are on the rise. Fifty-six people died of overdose in 2018-19 against 11 in 2017-18, health minister Brahm Mohindra said recently. Amritsar reported 11 deaths, the highest in the state, followed by nine in Tarn Taran.

Swayed by Amarinder's pledge, the family of a 30-year-old recovering addict in Tarn Taran switched loyalties from SAD to the Congress. Several others, too, voted the Congress in the hope of seeing an end to the drug problem.

The government says it has taken strong measures under its Comprehensive Action Against Drug Abuse policy. It has set up de-addiction and opioid substitution therapy centres, where treatment is free.

Activists say drugs are easily available. Chitta, variously described as heroin or a heroin-based concoction called so for its white colour, poppy husk, opium and over-the-counter medicines are the substances of abuse.

Farm debt coupled with limited job avenues have created an atmosphere of despair, providing a ready market for drugs, activists and academics say. A government of India-sponsored Punjab Opioid Dependence Survey of 2015 estimated the number of opioid users in Punjab at 2,32,856 or higher.

Drug abuse was a symptom of "withdrawal from hopeful life" and the outcome of marginalisation of the youth, said Jagroop Sekhon of Amritsar's Guru Nanak Dev University.

The 30-year-old recovering addict from Tarn Taran took to drugs six years ago as he couldn't find a job after graduating in pharmacology.

Drugs were easy to come by then. The proliferation of the trade coinciding with the second successive term for SAD, 2012 to 2017, hasn't gone unnoticed. "Drugs are a gift of the Akalis" is the refrain in the border villages.

Sekhon believes SAD's victory emboldened dealers it patronised. "They thought they could continue, unhindered," he said. There are also concerns over the effectiveness of measures taken to fight drug abuse.

To prevent spread of HIV through shared syringes, the National Aids Control Organisation has set up opioid substitution therapy centres, providing a free and legal alternative addiction: bupenoprofen. The tablets are crushed and administered by health workers.

The pharma graduate is registered with one such facility. "But there are now addicts who began their drug abuse with this," he said.

At another facility in Tarn Taran's civil hospital, dozens of men wait for their bupenoprofen fix. More than 600 addicts are given the pills, up to four times a day, every day. Eventually, the dose is tapered off.

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