Drug abuse-related deaths haunt Punjab. Farther

Chandigarh: Even as the political battle rages over the registration of a first informational report (FIR) against Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) leader Bikram Majithia, newspapers continue to report drug abuse-related deaths in Punjab.

While the congressional government and its leader Navjot Singh Sidhu want to project the case against Majithia as a major victory over the drug trafficking in the state, activists and families of addicts have a different story to tell – that they are filing a case against them and politicians will not sway have illegal trade.

On the evening of December 28th, Rajinder Singh, 29, from Bathinda’s village Ghuman Kalan died of a drug overdose. In February, Rajinder’s older brother Ranjit Singh (32) also died of drug addiction.

Karamjit Singh, a resident of the village, told The Wire that with Rajinder’s death, all male members of his family died.

Karamjit said the family watched Rajinder after his older brother died. “He returned home from work earlier this week. Some time later he was found dead in his room with an empty syringe in hand, ”Karamjeet said.

In an interview with a local news outlet, Rajinder’s mother, Manjeet Kaur, wept her heart. “I can’t sleep at night because I see the bodies of my two sons all the time,” she said.

She said that although the family tried to lure the two brothers out of their addiction, it was in vain. She blamed the simple acquisition of drugs in the village for her addiction. “Even a 10-year-old kid in the village knows where chitta (a form of heroin) is sold,” she added. She said there is a deep nexus that facilitates drug trafficking in the state.

“Why are the police not active? Why is Majithia booked now? Nobody is really serious about eradicating the drug threat, nobody thinks about affected families, ”she said.

The family of Rajinder Singh in the village of Ghuman Kalan in Bathinda. Photo: By appointment

Harpreet Singh, who became the father of a daughter six months ago, was found dead on December 29 in Sri Muktsar Sahib, near where he lived, from a drug overdose. The family said he returned home from an addiction center about two weeks ago but was unable to fully recover.

People in his neighborhood also blamed the easy availability of drugs and the police’s failure to catch those involved in drug trafficking as reasons for Harpreet’s addictions.

In another case, on December 24, an 18-year-old man was found dead from a drug overdose in the village of Fatehabad, Tarn Taran district. Gagandeep Singh’s body was found on the cremation site of the village. In a video message, Ganagdeep’s father, Ram Lubhaya, accused police of not doing enough to tackle the drug problem in the area.

He said, “There are many drug addicts and smugglers in our area. We often go to the police to file a complaint. But the police don’t listen to us. Medicines are readily available. That was the reason my son couldn’t stop. “

The grieving father added, “All of my three sons battled addiction. Gagandeep was the youngest, and he died of a drug overdose. I tried to get medical treatment for her addiction. My other two sons are better now. But Gagandeep couldn’t stop. “

“I urge the Punjab government to take action,” he said. “I lost my son. I urge the government to save the lives of others, ”he said.

Sonu Maheswari of the Bathinda-based NGO Noujawan Welfare Society, which helps police deal with drug cases, told The Wire that the situation on the ground was very alarming.

“On average, we process at least two to three drug overdose deaths each month. We also have around four to five cases each month where a person is found passed out because they took a large dose. It is very painful every time to see the helplessness and sadness of family members when their children’s bodies are handed over to them, ”Maheshwari said.

What experts and various studies say

The Punjab Opioid Dependence Survey (PODS) was commissioned by the Union government and carried out from February to April 2015 by the NGO Society for Promotion of Youth and Masses (SPYM) and AIIMS experts. It turned out that there were 2.32 lakh “drug addicts” in Punjab. This means that 1.2% of the adult population (2 crores according to the 2011 census) are addicted to drugs. As for the “users”, the survey estimates the figure at 8.6 lakh – which means that 4.5% of the entire adult population of Punjab have at least “used” drugs.

According to a 2019 report entitled Magnitude of Substance Use in India by the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, approximately 2.1% of the country’s population (2.26 crore individuals) use opioids, which include opium (or its variants such as poppy seed shells known as doda / phukki), heroin (or its impure form – smack or brown sugar), and a variety of pharmaceutical opioids (synthetic drugs). Punjab has more users, according to the survey.

But those who work in the field say these numbers don’t reflect the real situation. Mang Gurprasad, the deputy liaison officer at Nasha Mukti Bharat Abhiyan of SBS Nagar, told The Wire that multiple drug-related deaths or serious addictions are not reported as people prefer not to contact the police or government agencies because of social stigma.

A member of an NGO in Bathinda told The Wire that even the police are not reporting the drug-related deaths. “There have been cases when even senior police officers asked us to hide the syringes that were found near the bodies,” he said.

Dr. Atul Ambekar of AIIMS, New Delhi, was PODS ‘lead investigator in 2015. He told The Wire that the problem of drug use or drug use disorders in India is quite large but is still on a manageable level. The most worrying drug category in India is opioids, with the prevalence of opioid use in India being three times the global average (0.7% versus 2.1%). Research now shows that opioid-group drugs (especially heroin) are associated with the highest rates of illness, death and disability across all drug categories. The high prevalence of opioid use, particularly heroin, is indeed worrying.

According to Ambekar, Punjab has the largest percentage of the population who uses drugs. For most of the drug categories, the percentage of people using it in Punjab is much higher than the national average. Alcohol consumption in Punjab is 28.5%, while the national average is 14.6%. For cannabis it is 12.5% ​​and 2.8%; for opioids, use in Punjab is 9.7% compared to the national average of 2.1%.

A special session for female drug users at the Hermitage Killing Center.  Photo credit: Anasuya Basu

A special session for female drug users at the Hermitage Killing Center. Photo: Anasuya Basu

Did the ban on less harmful substances lead to chitta?

Dr. Ambekar told The Wire that it is known that when a relatively less harmful substance is not available, another substance – often more harmful – fills the vacuum. Interestingly, in the decades following the complete ban and criminalization of cannabis products by the NDPS (a relatively less addictive substance) law, an increase in the use of heroin (a very harmful and addictive substance) has been observed in India.

He said that since both drugs are banned, the drug market has an incentive to switch to heroin as profit margins are many times higher. Before the NDPS Act, ganja or charas were not as strictly controlled and low-potency opium products such as poppy seed pods were also available in a regulated manner. “A total ban on substances with low potency and less addictive potential has facilitated the movement of the drug market towards more potent and risky substances,” he said.

“As in any other market, reduced availability of a product will lead consumers to switch to a replacement product. Thus, restricting the availability of poppy seed pods appears to create a market for heroin. Even if heroin becomes more expensive, a shift to alternatives in the form of pharmaceutical opioids can be expected, ”he added.

“Therefore, it is absolutely critical that our response to drug problems is not only based on law enforcement and drug supply control, but also has a reasonable balance between reducing drug demand and harm mitigation,” he added.

“Deaths Won’t Stop Unless The Nexus Is Broken”

Punjab politicians often seem to underestimate the severity of the Punjab drug problem. SAD President Sukhbir Singh Badal claimed in 2016 that of the state’s total population of 2.77 billion (2011 census), only 0.06% were drug addicts.

Punjab Congress leader Navjot Singh Sidhu has repeatedly accused Amarinder Singh, who came to power in 2017 with a promise to tackle the drug and sacrilege issues, of not doing enough to stop drug trafficking in Punjab .

On the other hand, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has criticized both Congress and SAD for their “failure” to eradicate the drug trade.

Attorney Navkiran Singh, who is prosecuting drug-related cases before the Punjab and Haryana Supreme Court, told The Wire that unless there is a serious attempt to break ties between drug smugglers, police and politicians, these deaths cannot be stopped .

“I’m not saying actions against Majithia were wrong, but at the same time the state government has not responded to reports from other SITs examining the role of police officers in assisting and facilitating the drug trade,” Navkiran said.

He said senior police officer Siddharth Chattopadhyaya, who is currently the deputy director general of the police department, presented several reports to the Supreme Court in 2018 after investigating the role of police officers involved in the drug trafficking and housing of the drug traffickers.

“My question is why the state government is silent about taking action on these reports, even though it recently committed itself in the HC to act accordingly?” he said.

Navkiran said it appeared that the state had taken action against politicians for reasons of political career, but was not taking appropriate action on other reports.

He said, “In principle, no government wants to anger the police by acting against them. What other reasons could there be that the state does not react to the reports that were drawn up by the current DGP itself? “

He said drug abuse in Punjab is a multi-crore business that will flourish until serious efforts are made to break the nexus.

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