Saturday, Jun 10, 2023

Punjab Drug Menace Taking Toll On Himachal, New CM Sukhwinder Sukhu Has Task Cut Out For Him

Punjab Drug Menace Taking Toll On Himachal, New CM Sukhwinder Sukhu Has Task Cut Out For Him

Drugs have made way deep into Himachal Pradesh, with record number of people being arrested in drugs-related offences in recent years. Drugs like ‘chitta’ are being consumed widely.

Representative image for drugs menace in various parts of India
Representative image for drugs menace in various parts of India

It all began in the late 1980s in Himachal Pradesh’s Kullu. The famed hill destination started attracting spiked attention. Foreigners, bag-packers, adventures, and peddlers found a new charm in the mysterious Himachal valleys. 

The ancient landlocked village of Malana became the biggest producer of world-class charas, which is the famed ‘Malana Cream’.  It has the highest demand in the international market. 

Years down the line, Himachal is no longer a safe-haven for the youth as the drugs menace is similar to the situation in neighbouring state Punjab. The state is finding it tough to deal now. 

“There are drug [overdose]-related deaths happening almost every second day across villages and towns. The data reported in the newspapers is just the tip of the iceberg. Families usually try their best to conceal it. The large number of deaths remain unreported even today,” says Harbans Singh, in-charge of the Special Task Force (STF) on drugs in Ludhiana in Punjab.

Alarm bells are also ringing in Himachal. The state is not only a producer and supplier of charas—a product derived from cannabis plants— but also a consumer of high risk drugs like ‘chitta’ — a fine powdery substance considered as the most dangerous form of the hashish. This is particularly smuggled into Himachal from Delhi and Punjab. It amounts to be there in almost 40 per cent of all addiction cases among the youths — both boys and girls.

Leaders take note of Himachal drugs menace

During recently held Himachal elections, Union Home Minister Amit Shah spoke about drug problem gripping the state and promised to take up a decisive battle to make Himachal a drugs-free state even as he admitted that Punjab was already bearing the brunt of the drug menace.

The All India Congress Committee (AICC) General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi too spoke about drugs as a biggest menace because of youths. The Congress promised to set-up an Anti-Drug Enforcement Authority in Himachal — a statutory body either under a sitting high court judge or state Lokayukta. 

Chief Minister Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu has also said he would take up Himachal drugs menace on priority. He said, “Once we form the Cabinet and get down to business, I will take some proactive steps to deal with the problem head on. I proposed to take up the matter with my counterpart in Punjab and develop a mechanism on information-sharing on various drug cartels and traffickers.” 

Record number of drugs cases in Himachal

A record 2,124 persons, including 82 foreigners, were arrested under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act in 2021 in 1,539 cases, according to the data available with the narcotics bureau of Himachal Pradesh Police. The seizures were also all time high during the year which included 593 kg of charas and huge quantities of opium, ganja, heroin, and poppy husk.

In 2022, the police has arrested 1,992 persons, 89 of them foreigners, in 1,421 cases registered under NDPS Act till November 30,2022. Total recoveries include 467 kg of charas and several other forms of drugs in substantially high quality.

In one of the biggest drug hauls in Himachal, the Kullu Police seized 111 kg of charas in January 2021. It was said to be one of the highest seizures in the history of the state so far during an anti-narcotics drive in the state. 

Superintendent of Police (Narcotics) Gaurav Singh says a large quantity of seizures in Himachal at various places clearly indicates that consumption —drugs abuse— is on rise despite several strategies put in place. Yet the police have to maintain pressure and block supply chains, especially in case of “chitta” being smuggled in the state.

Singh tells Outlook, “The real cause of concern is drug overdose causing deaths among the youths. Some young addicts are also turning traffickers and the chain continues expanding. We have a massive awareness drive among school and college students. Nearly 6,000 students have already been approached in the past three months, 2,500 have taken pledge not to consume drugs and motivate others too.” 

Director General of Police (DGP) Sanjay Kundu says, “The war against drug is a priority number one. We have introduced register number 29 at all police stations to keep record of the peddlers and those involved in trafficking. Some of the biggest seizures happened during past two years.”

Yet there is no denying the fact that 55-60 pe recent of the youths, most of them college- and school-going teenagers, are either drug abusers or addicts. The addicts also turn peddlers to fund their own doses. More than 50 deaths have happened during the past two years, although the police records don’t say so.

The rising Punjab drugs problem

In Punjab, the gravity of the situation is well known, perhaps aptly described in the 2016 Bollywood movie Udta Punjab. Despite change of regimes from the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party government to Congress and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) governments, the drug trafficking and abuse have only increased over time.

“Practically speaking, I don’t see any marked change in the drug abuse scenario in Punjab during the past few years. A new dimension, rather, is drug overdose deaths happening. Sangrur, CM Bhagwant Mann’s home district, has become quite infamous for this. Young boys dying of drug overdose is the scariest thing and a hard reality,” says Gautam Dheer, a Chandigarh-based senior journalist, who has done a series of stories on the drug problem in Punjab.     

It's very convenient for international drug smugglers to push their consignments into Punjab either manually or through drones. Only sometime back, some drones were intercepted by the Border Security Force (BSF), which has its area of operation up to 50 kms from the borders.

This month only, a drone was recovered near the international border in Tarn Taran district along with 3 kg of heroin. Earlier, BSF recovered around 25 kg of heroin airdropped by a Pakistani drone in Fazilka district on December 3. 

Dheer says there have been huge drone interceptions by the BSF but no big fish has been caught so far. The steps taken by the government and BSF have had some impact. Yet the side effect of this, as per him, is that addicts are consuming sub-stranded drugs available locally. This is a cause of deaths due to overdose.

Heroin is the most preferred drug in Punjab, used by over 50 per cent addicts. Others prefer opium and synthetic drugs.

“The problem is so widespread that one can easily say Punjab’s young generation has already been killed by drugs. Every third household has at least one addict in the family, mainly youth in the age group of 16 to 29 years. Few die as young as 18 to 22. It’s a new form of terrorism sponsored by Pakistan,” says Jaswant Singh, a taxi driver from Punjab.

Tarn Taran, a district next to the Pakistan border is among the worst affected. Others in the list are Faridkot, Jalandhar, Amritsar, Bathinda, Ferozepur, Fazilka, Gurdaspur, Kapurthala, Ludhiana, Mansa, Moga, Pathankot, Sangrur, Patiala, Muktsar and Hoshiarpur.

The shocking stories emerging from Maqbool Pura, a village few kilometers from Amritsar, are heart-rending where hundreds of young persons have died from drugs. It is also known as a village of widows and orphans as being inflicted by tragedies of drug overdose menace. Though exact figures are not available, few put the toll as 500 in the past two decades.