During the run up to the Punjab elections, Chief Minister Amarinder Singh put his hand on the gutka (holy text) and vowed to “end the drug menace within four weeks” of coming to power. A year and four months later, he has sought mandatory death sentence for first-time convicts for manufacture, possession and smuggling of commercial quantities of narcotics, as specified in the Act.
For decades the government has attributed the inflow of drugs into the state via Pakistan, why then has the drug menace reared its ugly head only in the last decade leading to the demand of such harsh legislation? Punjab has been a border state for 69 years. So what’s changed?
The Quint spoke to doctors, surveyors and people from the security establishment to get answers.
Opium: An Old Story
Opium or doda or phukki, as it is traditionally known, has been consumed by farmers and farm workers in Punjab as also many other parts of India for decades. It’s essentially opium husk – the leftover husk of the opium plant once the milk has been extracted.
At least one-third of the rural population consumes opium in Punjab. To put it in perspective, opium consumption among the rural population is a bit like the urban concept of a customary two drinks after a hard day’s work. It may not be great for you, but will not do you much harm, right? Plus, the daily doze of opium used to cost Rs 30-40 – light on the pocket.
Drug ‘Problem’ Suddenly?
Traditionally, very small amounts of opium was cultivated in Punjab. The state got its supply mainly from bordering Rajasthan. The government in its bid to curb opium addiction decided to clamp down on Punjab’s limited illegal opium production and shut down the Rajasthan route. While the decision was taken in the mid-1980s, it was only in the early 2000s that there was a clampdown.
With the Rajasthan route closed, there was a vacuum in the drug market which was filled with pharmaceutical drugs and then heroin.
Heroin is at least three times more potent than opium. A senior drug specialist at AIIMS said that studies have shown that more than 90 percent opium users do not suffer from addiction issues, making it the lesser of the two evils.
Not Just a Party Problem
It’s not just spoilt rich kids or rock stars who consume drugs in Punjab, as the movies would have you believe. The Punjab Opioid Dependency Survey (PODS) conducted by the National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre, AIIMS points out that the largest concentration of consumers come from economically weaker sections with limited education and employment. The PODS survey says:
The profile of a typical drug addict is male, young, Punjabi-speaking and from a lower middle class background. 83 percent are employed, 89 percent have attained some level of addiction and 99 percent live with families.
Most addicts earn between Rs 6,000-20,000 a month but need an average of Rs 1,400 a day for drugs. So where does the surplus money for daily drug use come from? Most addicts become small-time peddlers. They buy and supply and retain a small cut, and that is how the drug economy expands.
Govt Myopia To Blame?
Pakistan is not the only route heroin is coming from. A senior retired security personnel said:
Why are we blaming Pakistan for Punjab’s drug menace? It is of our own making. Our own government policy initiative to curb opium created a vacuum in the market which a deadlier and more costly heroin has filled.
Highly placed sources within the security establishment also claim that there is a local heroin cottage industry brewing in UP and Rajasthan. Peddlers in the state can differentiate the varieties produced in UP, Rajasthan from what is coming from across the border.
Rajasthan Headed the ‘Punjab’ Way
The Rajasthan government has decided to shut all opium shops starting 1 April 2016. A recent report in The Indian Express says that there are 264 doda thekas in Rajasthan. They are given licences by the state excise department just like the liquor shops. There have been 19,000 licenses given out by the state government in Rajasthan for the sale of doda.
While shutting these shops on the border will have an even bigger impact on villages in Punjab surrounding Rajasthan, it is likely to drive Rajasthan toward harder and more harmful drugs like heroin.
Experts working in the region say, this is a suicidal policy decision by the government and Rajasthan will eventually head the Punjab way.
The Punjab government quietly released a shorter version of the PODS report on its website in January 2016. There is a longer, more detailed version which has been kept confidential. There was no announcement, declaration or discussion on the findings of the report.
The report also criticises the government’s rehab strategy.
“Admission to a de-addiction centre”, which appears to be the most focused-upon addiction-treatment strategy in the state, will take about 10 years to provide a single episode of treatment to the entire opioid dependent population in the state.
It is time that the government understood that drugs in Punjab, like drugs anywhere else in the world, is not a supply problem, but a demand problem. Hurting the supply will not kill the demand.
(The article was first published in on 16 June 2016 and has been reposted from The Quint’s archives in light of Punjab CM Captain Amarinder Singh asking the Centre to push for death penalty for those convicted of smuggling drugs.)