The lyrical snippet “Powder ki Lino ka Rakhega Kaun Hisaab”, which translates to “who will keep tabs on the use of powder lines”, from the popular film Udta Punjab, questions the status quo of the profusion and easy availability of drugs in Punjab, on top of reflecting the poor enforcement of the law.

The latest data on Punjab’s drug problem is enlightening.

Alarmingly, a report submitted in Parliament last year revealed that of more than 6.6 million drug users in Punjab, as many as 697,000 are children between 10-17 years of age. Among these, 343,000 children take opioid drugs (including heroin), 18,100 take cocaine and around 72,000 are hooked on inhalants.

It’s not only men, but young women who are targets of drug pushers.  Data based on a question in Parliament’s Upper House reveals that of the total female drug addicts in India, 16 percent are from Punjab.

There’s one other statistic that sets Punjab apart: 75 percent of all drugs seized in India in 2020 were in the state.

And when it comes to drug deaths,  in 2022, Punjab’s share was 21 percent. Most of those were people aged 18-30.

Punjab’s drug trafficking and abuse situation has been grim for years, with the central and the state governments unable to arrest the narcotics tide in the face of high demand and supply and “protection” given by the state’s police.

A central government report lists Punjab third – after Uttar Pradesh (31,482) and Maharashtra (28,959) – for the highest number of drug-related registered cases  (under the Narcotics and Psychotropic Drugs Act, 1986) at 28,417, between 2019 and 2021.  Ludhiana district is the main centre with most cases – 882 and followed by Amritsar (694) and Hoshiarpur (666).

This isn’t a new phenomenon. The state was awash with narcotics substances from across Pakistan in the early 1980s when armed militancy took roots ahead of the cataclysmic events surrounding the army’s 1984 Golden Temple operation.

Narcotics sources

Since then, drug abuse has not only survived but thrives. Punjab’s border districts soon became the crossing points for traffickers bringing in heroin from Afghanistan through Pakistan. The state’s proximity to the ‘Golden Crescent’ (Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan), which is the hub of the global illicit drug trade, has driven it to suffer enormously from the perils of trafficking.

Soon enough, the drug menace spread to Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and into the very heart of Delhi, the national capital as cases of drug abuse went up in these areas.

The ‘Green Revolution’s’ affluence and foreign remittances enabled people’s ability to access and purchase narco-substances. 

With the Green Revolution, Punjab witnessed an increase in per capita income and a fall in poverty levels. Several studies on Punjab’s drug menace show that the affluence from the Green Revolution’s success provided people with the money to narco-substances with ease. Indeed, the illicit use of drugs led to indebtedness and farmers’ suicide in Punjab.

As the demand for drugs went up, drug lords, including influential politicians, took control and pushed the illicit trade which, on the ground, was run and operated by licensed growers and illegal cultivators networked with small peddlers, pushers and couriers.

One study on the economic benefits  to peddlers showed that 35.6 per cent earned between Rs 20,000 (US$239.45) to Rs 30,000 (US$359.10) per month. Such profits often lure the unemployed youth into the drug trade.

To take on the drug mafia-police nexus, Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Singh Mann transferred 10,000 policemen from their posts. Search-and-seizure raids were conducted across the state, especially the top 10 hotspots. This resulted in several arrests.

This was part of an all-too-familiar exercise: every past state government had claimed to be stricter than the previous when taking on the drug problem. To support these accomplishments, arrests and seizures would be tom-tomed in political campaigns. However, these initiatives only boosted the demand for more drugs, creating thereby new hotpots.

When the police did act, they apprehended small fish, such as peddlers and addicts, carriers and couriers. The big drug lords controlling the supply chain, drug trade and smuggling remained untouched.

It has been suggested that politics must not override the grave issue of drugs and that all political parties must put behind their differences to identify and isolate the drug lords and break the police-mafia nexus. 

Above all, Punjab’s people must avoid denying that the state does not have a drug addiction problem.

‘Paracetamol’ approach

The state government is handicapped in providing an effective strategy to fight the drug menace as it follows a ‘paracetamol’ treatment approach. 

The schemes and strategies employed to combat the menace lack efficiency, vision, strategy and even targets.

An effective curative approach involving a robust health system, treatment measures, efficient law enforcement and community policing would have made an impactful difference.

Any future strategy to combat Punjab’s seemingly unresolvable drug problem should work on three broad fronts – prevention, rehabilitation and reintegration. The state government has lagged in upholding the preventive measures that have been recommended back-to-back through various studies conducted in this region.

Currently, drugs users in Punjab are dependent on 31 government-run detox centres (with a total bed strength of 543), 12 voluntary organisations and detox counselling camps.

Considering the large number of children, youth and women exposed to drug abuse and deaths, the state government could form a multi-agency consortium (in partnership with community members, health officials, NGOs and police) to target appropriate treatment for drug addicts.

Adopting skill development-based rehabilitation and reintegration measures to prevent the drug menace from compounding could also be put in place.

Punjab’s drug menace is a multi-layered problem. Aggressive initiatives such as transfer of police officials, a high number of arrests and annual drug awareness campaigns alone will not make any major impact. 

Instead, the state government could focus on addressing issues such as lack of employment opportunities for young people, the people’s nonchalant attitude towards the deepening drug problem, lack of awareness among adolescents, poor counselling among students and corruption in the police force. 

More importantly, the government could form a multi-agency consortium which, in turn, could take steps to strengthen efforts to improve surveillance of the drug-trade routes and zones, undertake operations to hit hard against the police-politician-drug lords nexus and vastly augment infrastructural availability for treatment of drug addicts. 

Amit Kumar is an Assistant Professor at the Institute for Development and Communication, Chandigarh. His areas of specialisation include Gender and Masculinities Studies, Gender and Social Geography and Gender and Governance. He earned his PhD from Panjab University, Chandigarh.

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.

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Instead of piecemeal efforts, the state government could follow a comprehensive strategy to combat narcotics menace.
Punjab is awash in drugs the state’s police won’t stop