|A man holds a paper stamp urging people to vote in Amritsar. (PTI)
For some, the fight against darkness begins at the crack of dawn.
It’s barely six in the morning but distressed families of drug addicts are already queuing before the district civic hospital’s de-addiction centre, which opens only at 10am.
Young men --- some of them mere teens --- are either spread-eagled on the hospital’s sprawling lawns or, grappling with an intolerable urge, are crying for their daily dose. Some are gulping down a capsule that temporarily minimises the withdrawal symptoms.
After the sufferings of the Partition and terrorism, Punjab is wracked by a new misery that has become its biggest issue this election.
People across the state, be it centrally located Jalandhar or border districts like Amritsar and Taran Taran, are expressing a deep sense of anguish and hopelessness at the drug menace.
Hopelessness, because there is a general belief that the Akali Dal-BJP government is not interested in fighting the scourge.
With the supply of contraband easy and rampant in the districts bordering Pakistan, Taran Taran is among the worst hit.
“At least 600 to 700 patients come here daily,” a nurse at the hospital told The Telegraph.
“Most are young men between 18 and 25, but people of all age groups are affected. Even girls and newly wed couples come here for de-addiction.”
Another hospital employee said: “No treatment is given here. With only a 10-bed de-addiction centre that has one doctor, our only target is that the patient should stop IV (intra-venous drug intake) and start oral pills. After that, the families are asked to control and minimise the use slowly.”
Private doctors in the district said they avoided such patients. “We have no treatment (facilities); we refer them to government hospitals,” a doctor said.
“If rich people come with their wards, we suggest they go to Chandigarh or Delhi. The basic objective is that the addict should be taken away from this area.”
Asked about the extent of the scourge, he said: “More than 60 per cent of the young men are into either drugs or alcohol. Smack and opium are the most commonly used substances. Capsules too are available.”
He added: “If you go to the villages, you will find a death from drug overuse in one out of every five families.”
Another doctor said the region had a very high incidence of HIV infection because of “the use of the needle” (to push drugs). “There is a spurt in drug-related crime and violence too.”
Finger at Akalis
Many doctors, teachers, businessmen and other educated people talk in hushed tones about politicians’ involvement in the drug racket and express frustration at the authorities’ lack of interest in combating the challenge.
Almost all blame the Akali government. In villages in the border districts of Amritsar, Taran Taran, Firozepur and Gurdaspur, elders rue that entire generations are being lost to drugs.
“This general election, the slogan in Punjab should be ‘Munde bachao, kudiyan bachao (Save your boys and girls)’,” a villager said.
“The boys are in bad shape; and the girls are unable to conceive (because of their husbands’ drug-induced infertility) despite three or four years of marriage. We don’t know where we are heading to; Punjab’s villages will turn into graveyards.”
A shopkeeper in a busy market said: “Don’t write my name, they’ll kill me, but I know who are supplying the drugs. Rickshaw-pullers, students and labourers are regular consumers. In no village do the labourers work without bhukki (poppy). The police protect this racket.”
A police officer agreed to talk after much persuasion, insisting that his area or name must not be revealed.
“The situation is dreadful. We can control it within 24 hours if the orders come from the political bosses. But we are sorry to say that important people sitting in the government are involved,” he said.
One among a group of young men at Manawala village boasted: “Yes, we take drugs. Who will harm us, the government is ours.”
A law student at the Khalsa College in Amritsar said the drugs could be procured “anywhere”, without any problem. “There is no fear of the police as the addicts know where the protection is coming from.”
Several hoardings in Amritsar scream “Khatm hoga drug ka karobar/ Abki baar Modi sarkar”, promising that a Modi government would end the drug racket.
Ironically, the Congress candidate from Amritsar, Amarinder Singh, has accused Akali leaders of involvement in the drug trade. He has particularly targeted state revenue minister Bikram Majithia, brother-in-law of deputy chief minister Sukhbir Badal.
Barely a couple of days ago, former state police chief Shashikant told a news conference in Jalandhar that senior ministers and bureaucrats were involved in the drug racket. He said a daily trade of Rs 50 crore was going on.
“I was pulled up because I had prepared a report on drugs misuse as IG (inspector-general) intelligence in 2007,” he said.
“Then again, when the ED (Enforcement Directorate) and Narcotics Control Bureau wanted to raid a minister, the chief minister asked me to stop it.”
Rahul Gandhi had triggered a major controversy in October 2012 by citing a three-year-old court affidavit by the Punjab government that claimed that approximately 70 per cent of the state’s youth were addicted to drugs.
It later emerged that the state government had got it wrong: the finding had come from a study that examined only drug users and was thus useless in determining the prevalence of addiction in the community at large.
The Congress is questioning Narendra Modi’s silence on the alleged involvement of three Punjab ministers in the drug racket after an arrested police officer named them in court.
The BJP is alive to the popular discontent on the issue but cannot push the matter as the Akalis cannot be antagonised at this stage. The Congress has sensed this dilemma and is trying to get the electoral discourse to revolve round the drug problem.
Many people said they wanted to use the vote to make a powerful statement against the drug racket.
The election has anyway given the addicts a headache. The Election Commission’s surveillance has hit supplies and pushed up drug prices. Seizures too are happening: on Wednesday, a farmer was caught with 4kg heroin (worth 20 crore) in a border village in Firozepur.
A weeping farmer, who has sent his addicted son to Australia to get him away from the drug menace at home, summed it up: “We have no hope, no happiness though we have money and land. We want the government to act to check this rot.”
Taran Taran and the rest of Punjab vote on April 30