In Punjab's War Against Drugs, Women Battle Addiction, Assault, and Stigma

Ground Report | Beyond the corridors of power and politics, women are the silent victims of Punjab's drug crisis.

Punjab Election
4 min read

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(Identities of the subjects have been concealed for privacy concerns.)

Eight-year-old Pinki* was born with 'withdrawal symptoms' in a maternity clinic in Punjab's Tarn Taran district. Her mother, an addict, was using intravenous drugs during pregnancy and died eight days after the delivery. Abandoned by her father, Pinki* now lives with her maternal uncle and his family.

Across the road, in the same locality where Pinki* lives, 45-year-old Harpal Singh, addicted to chitta (an adulterated form of heroin), died, allegedly, due to an overdose on 17 January 2022.

Harpal is survived by four children who are under the care of his sister-in-law. His wife died by suicide in 2017, allegedly after he beat her up under the influence of drugs and alcohol.


"This year, I was supposed to appear for board exams. First, I couldn't attend classes because we had only one smart phone between the four of us, and now with the death of my father, I have decided to drop out of school altogether," says Harpal's 15-year-old daughter Sheela*.

Harpal's eldest daughter, Preet* is hoping that an NGO adopts her youngest brother who is only seven years old. "My uncle (Harpal's brother) is pushing him into peddling. I don't want my brother to become an addict like my father," she says.

Pinki* and Preet* are just two of the many horror stories describing how women are the silent victims of Punjab's drug crisis.

While there is no official data on the number of women drug addicts in the state, a 2018 study by the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research, Chandigarh, places the figure at close to one million.

The Quint visited a government-run rehabilitation centre in Bhagupur village in Tarn Taran district where we met two women addicts who work as daily wagers and have enrolled themselves in the hospital's de-addiction program.

Addiction, Assault, and Stigma

Rani* was pushed into addiction after the death of her husband. She alleged that after her husband passed away, she was repeatedly sexually assaulted by her father-in-law. "When I protested, I was thrown out of the house. I had nowhere to go," says Rani*.

"Some women I knew agreed to help me. They said they'll give me a place to live and asked me how I will manage my expenses. I offered to do their household chores. Next thing I knew, men were visiting on an hourly basis," she adds.

At the age of 35, Rani is a grandmother to a two-year-old. Her daughter was married at the age of 15 by her in-laws after they threw Rani* out of the house. "I have not seen my granddaughter, yet. I haven't even met my own daughter for years," she says.

Rani* enrolled for the de-addiction program in 2019, two years after she started doing drugs. "I was on the streets begging for money. I spent nearly Rs 25 lakh on heroin. I sold everything I had. Even the chairs in my house."

It is difficult for women like Rani* to enroll themselves for de-addiction drives. There is societal pressure and several logistical issues. "When the team from Bhagupur rehab centre first came to me, I told them that I don't have the money to travel from Patti to Bhagupur and back every day. It'll cost Rs 40 daily," says *Rani. The officials at the rehab centre then arranged for a pick-and-drop facility for her.

"Rani's* case was an exception," says Dr Jaspreet Singh, medical officer at the Bhagupur rehabilitation centre. "Many women addicts refuse to come out and seek help even if they want to because of issues which are unique to them," he adds.

"There is acceptance of male addicts in society but substance abuse is still a stigma when it comes to women. They face issues when it comes to coming out, and even in availing treatment. Those who come out end up getting exploited. At the same time, it isn’t necessary that the addiction is always active. Sometimes women fall into passive addiction. If the husband is an addict, he forces his wife into it to hide his own addiction."
Dr Jaspreet Singh, medical officer at the Bhagupur rehabilitation centre

When Addiction 'Runs in The Family'

For Seema*, another patient who is currently seeking treatment at the Bhagupur centre, addiction runs in the family. Her husband was an addict. She became one after she left him, and a few years later, her three children were also into substance abuse.

"I left him because he used to do drugs and beat me up. The hardship I had to face to fend for my children pushed me into drugs. Later when my children grew up, and I was expecting them to help me out, I found out that they too are addicts," says Seema*.

Seema adds that she couldn't have stopped her children, as she herself was an addict.

"Availing treatment is an uphill task, especially for women. If there is no work and we stay at home there are several issues to worry about. It is impossible to quit drugs in such a situation," she says.


Elections and Politics of Drug Abuse

In the run up to the state assembly elections, politics around drugs and narcotics abuse heated up in Punjab. The Punjab police booked Akali Dal leader, and brother-in-law of Sukhbir Singh Badal under various sections of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act in a 2013 case.

While Navjot Singh Sidhu and the Congress party hailed the step, Akali Dal leaders termed it as "political vendetta" ahead of elections.

In Patti, however, both Rani* and Seema* have no hopes from the government. "Recently, Charanjit Singh Channi, the Chief Minister of Punjab, visited Patti. Lakhs were spent on his visit. If they had given even a small part of that money to the poor, we would've blessed them," says Rani*.

Seema* agrees, "No government has done anything for us. The least they can do is help with jobs and permanent rehabilitation."

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Topics:  Drug Abuse   Punjab Elections   AAP Punjab 

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