India’s northern state of Punjab is known as the “Granary of India”. But in recent years, the state has emerged as a fertile ground not just for crops, but for drug abuse.
Now, with the assembly elections in 5 states, including Punjab, underway, the drug problem is dominating the campaign.
Bismillah Geelani has the story.
Thirty-five-year-old Dheeraj Singh lives in Punjab’s Ferozpour district.
Until a few years ago, he went to the gym every day – with dreams of becoming a professional weightlifter. But his life took a turn for the worse when he became addicted to heroin.
Now he can barely lift his own body weight.
“I was against all these things. In fact, I used to help people come out of it. But my friends often insisted that I try it once and when I finally did I liked it. A few times more and you are addicted, that’s what it does,” Singh admitted.
Every time Singh tried to give up the addiction he ended up plunging deeper into it and his debts kept piling up.
“Only an addict knows what happens when you don’t get the daily fix. It’s terrible – red watery eyes, running nose and frightening palpitations –so strong is the urge that one can go to the extent of committing a crime, he can even murder someone for money,” Singh told me.
Punjab gets its name from the five rivers running through it.
But in recent years, it has been mostly known for what many call the sixth river, says social activist Brij Bedi.
“The entire state is engulfed by drugs, especially the youth. The problem is so huge that it has become like a river. Everybody here talks of the sixth river; it is this river of drugs and addiction,” Bedi said.
According to the government, two out of three households in rural Punjab have at least one drug addict in the family.
The situation isn’t any better in urban areas where drugs are more readily available.
And it has left a long trail of pain and misery.
Maqoolpura village in Amritsar district epitomizes the suffering the state has been through. It is called the village of drug widows because in almost each of the four hundred families living here is at least one widow of a drug addict.
Forty-five-year-old Mandeep has already lost her husband to drugs and now fears for her son who is also a drug addict. She hasn’t seen him for months.
“What can a mother like me do except cry and curse my destiny. They do drugs and suffer as long as they live, and one day they die leaving us shattered and crying day and night,” Madeep told me.
“Ultimately, it is women who bear the brunt of it all. I can’t go out to earn and feed him, neither is he able to work,” she said.
Most of the opiate drugs plaguing Punjab originate in Afghanistan and make their way into India through Pakistan.
Some accuse Pakistan of using drugs as a form of proxy war to destabilize India.
Border security guards are vigilant but the drug trade continues to flourish and many also accuse the ruling establishment of providing patronage to drug peddlers.
Bhagwant Mann is a parliamentarian from Punjab.
“Kashmir also shares a border with Pakistan and it is not even fenced, and so does Rajasthan, but we haven’t heard of anyone in Kashmir or Rajasthan using smack,” Mann said.
“Why is this problem only in Punjab? It is because the politicians and people in the administration are involved,” he stated.
Raids on factories have also shown there is a problem with synthetic drugs in Punjab. And in some cases, police involvement in drug rackets.
For a long time, the local government remained in denial about the magnitude of the problem. It took a Bollywood film last year, and some political campaigning after that, to bring the problem to national focus.
Now it is the main issue on which the current assembly election in the state is being fought.
All political parties in the fray have promised to eradicate the drug menace once they come to power.
Who the voters have found more convincing will become clear early next month when the election results will be announced.