Gautaman Bhaskaran | Big fish spared as India's Punjab state fights drug menace

Big fish spared as India’s Punjab state fights drug menace

June 10, 2016 2:29 AM (UTC+8)

 

The number of heroin addicts in affluent Punjab is four times the global average. The state government’s efforts to tackle this problem are not proving effective as local drug lords continue to roam free while young addicts are put behind bars. Amid this, Udta Punjab, a Hindi film focusing on how drugs are destroying lives in the state, is yet to get censor board’s approval due to scenes of excessive swearing and drug consumption

The controversial Bollywood film Udta Punjab may have exposed a suffocatingly mulish Central Board of Film Certification in India which has been refusing exhibition rights for the movie unless an insane number of cuts are made.

An Indian official of Punjab Police's Special Narcotics Cell displays part of four kilograms of high grade heroin, seized near the international bus terminal in Amritsar
An Indian official of Punjab Police’s Special Narcotics Cell displays part of four kilograms of high grade heroin seized near the international bus terminal in Amritsar

But the Anurag Kashyap-produced film on substance abuse in the sensitive western Indian state of Punjab, which borders a none-too-friendly Pakistan, has brought into sharp focus a galloping evil that threatens to make zombies out of hundreds of thousands of men.

It may not be an exaggeration to point out that Punjab’s drug problem is as bad as or worse than it is in Mexico, and it is no secret that narcotics fund terrorism.

The nexus between drug smugglers and terrorists was a point of heated debate early this year when the Pathankot air base in Punjab was attacked by Pakistanis who had infiltrated through the border, and, as we all know, just about every addict tends to turn into a peddler with close links to the big guys.

It is suspected that the Pakistani intruders took the relatively easy drug route to enter the airbase.

A new study — soon after the January 2016 Pathankot siege — by the New Delhi-based All India Institute of Medical Sciences  (AIIMS) found that opioids worth Rs 7,5000 million ($1,124 million) were being consumed every year in Punjab, and in this, the share of heroin alone was a whopping Rs 65,000 million ($974 million).

Equally alarming, almost all heroin that comes into Punjab is pushed by smugglers reportedly in connivance with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) whose deep-rooted hostility towards India is well known.

However, India’s security agencies have been saying that the smuggled heroin merely passes through Punjab to cities like Delhi and Mumbai. But the AIIMS study has busted this contention. The heroin is used in Punjab, and the state is not an innocent conduit, the study affirmed.

Out of Punjab’s total population of 28 million, as many as 123,000 men, women and teenagers have to have their daily fix of heroin. This means that the Punjab figure is four times the global average.

Medical experts in the state have said this kind of addiction can cripple the region much in the same way AIDS ravished parts of Africa.

Mind you, there are hundreds of thousands of people in Punjab who are addicted to not just heroin, but also other drugs. About 240,000 people depend on opioid, and 860,000 are actual users.

Yoga guru Baba Ramdev, who is fast becoming an industrialist by manufacturing and promoting his Patanjali brand of food stuff and who is Haryana’s brand ambassador for Ayurveda, told a media conference in May 2015: “Eighty per cent of the youth in Punjab have fallen into the trap of drug menace. Whenever I travel abroad, people keep telling me to do something about this and save Punjab”.

The addicts also use needles, another cause of worry.

“We must also note that this (AIIMS) survey estimates a much higher number of injecting drug users in Punjab (around 75,000) as compared with the existing estimate (under 20,000). Thus, there is a clear threat of explosive epidemic of HIV among injecting drug users in Punjab,” said Dr Atul Ambedkar, the lead investigator and principal author of the survey, to Times of India.

So the Punjab-Africa comparison does not sound far-fetched.

Peeved and angry over Punjab being described by some as a state in “sozzled stupefaction,” the government ordered a crackdown in May 2014. Punjab’s deputy chief minister and home minister, Sukhbir Singh Badal, declared with all the pompous fanfare that usually accompanied such statements: “We will spare no one.”

Indeed, he did not, but those who came into this seemingly ambitious drive were small-time peddlers.

An eight-month investigation made by The Indian Express found that 17,068 people were arrested in Punjab in 2014 for drug-related offences, and in 2015, 11,593 were held.

But as the paper found out and wrote the other day  to time it with the Udta Punjab controversy: “Dig deeper and what emerges is a story of a rush to rack up numbers. Punjab’s war on drugs has, in effect, turned into a war on its addicts, the most vulnerable rung at the bottom of the supply ladder.”

Most of those arrested were found to possess 50 grams or less of heroin, 100 grams or less of intoxicant powder, 50 grams or less of opium and one kilogram or less of poppy husk!

“Those who have been arrested were merely small-time peddlers. No drug lord worth his name has been put behind bars. The crackdown was absolutely flawed and done to make up the numbers. It took place without any foresight and planning. Addiction is a sickness like any other disease and there is no point in putting addicts behind bars,” said Shashi Kant, former director-general of police (prisons), who runs a non-governmental organisation Nasha Virodhi Manch to help addicts.

Udta Punjab should be allowed to screen so people get to know how drugs are laying waste the people of Punjab
The film Udta Punjab should be allowed to screen so viewers get to know how drugs are laying waste the people of Punjab

Jathedar Udha Singh, who heads a gurudwara (a Sikh temple) in Boot, a village in Punjab, agreed with Kant.

“The police only focused on youngsters who were addicts since they were easy to catch. The big fish continue to roam free. There are some examples in our village where local drug lords are roaming around freely. These people have built palatial houses with the money they have earned from selling drugs. The police know about them but have done nothing because they are well-connected politically,” Singh said.

However, the Punjab government led by the Shiromani Akali Dal — a close and the oldest ally of the BJP, which is now holding the reins in New Delhi — is in denial of the drug menace, and with the assembly elections coming in less than a year, the administration would not want to be seen as having been playing the fiddle while the state sank into stupor.

Udta Punjab — which fictionalizes the evil of drugs in the state into a full-length feature with some of Bollywood’s tops stars like Shahid Kapoor, Kareena Kapoor and Alia Bhatt performing — may hardly be the kind of publicity that the government would want at this juncture.

At the time of writing this piece on Friday, the movie had been granted an adults-only certificate subject to the excision of several words, including ‘Punjab’ from the title. The producer is now appealing to the Bombay High Court against this verdict..

One hopes Udta Punjab is allowed to screen, and people get to know, as an editorial in The Hindu (another English language daily) quipped, ” that drugs are laying waste the people of the state”.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic, who has worked with The Statesman in Kolkata and The Hindu in Chennai for 35 years. He now writes for the Hindustan Times, the Gulf Times and Seoul Times.

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