Seeking a drug-free India by 2047, but uncaring for today’s young drug addicts in Punjab

Drug addiction rates in the northern state are alarming, with more than 15 per cent of the population victim of some form of substance abuse. After alcohol and tobacco, heroin is the drug of choice due to geographic proximity to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Underemployment and subhuman working conditions push many into addiction. Few people trust the police, seen as in cahoots with traffickers.

Milan (AsiaNews) - Last month, during the first conference of the heads of the anti-drug task forces of all Indian states, Union Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah asked central agencies to be "ruthless" with drug traffickers, noting that his ministry had set the goal of a "drug-free" India by 2047 to mark 100 years of the country’s independence.

“Drug traders are the main culprits as the drug consumers are the victims. We have to take a ruthless approach against the drug traders and the strongest possible action should be taken against them,” the minister said.

To this end, he urged political leaders in every state to rise above "party politics and ideology" in this effort, boasting that the number of criminal cases registered against drug traffickers and cartels in the country rose by 181 per cent during the nine years of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.

“While only about 1,257 cases were registered between 2006 and 2013, the number has increased to 3,544 between 2014 [and] 2022,” he noted. “In the same period, the number of arrests increased 300 per cent to 5,408 as against 1,363 arrests. During 2006-2013, 1.52 lakh (152,000) kilograms of drugs were seized which doubled to 3.73 lakh (373,000) kilograms between 2014 and 2022”.

India’s drug abuse problem is serious. According to a survey carried out between 2017 and 2018 and published in 2019, more than 30 million people use cannabis products, with about 2.5 million addicted, while at least 22.6 million people use opioids, with 7.7 million in need of help.

About 15.8 million children between the ages of 10 and 17 are addicted to substances, according to a study by the National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre, which is in line with UN data showing that 13 per cent of people involved in drug abuse in India are under the age of 20.

The study also shows that three out of four people do not receive treatment, but for health experts, the figures are much higher. In the case of children, human trafficking, child labour and exploitation by criminal gangs result in poor mental and physical health conditions leading to alcohol and other forms of substance abuse.

The northern state of Punjab has particularly alarming levels of drug use. In the second half of 2022, the number of patients admitted to opioid treatment clinics doubled from 400,000 to 800,000. According to other studies, at least three million, more than 15 per cent of the state's population, use drugs, with alcohol at the top of the list.

Over 75 per cent of the young population is struggling with some form of drug addiction, with one in three individuals linked to substances other than alcohol and tobacco.

It is also believed that about 30 per cent of Punjab prison inmates have been arrested for illegal narcotics possession, whose annual trafficking, according to estimates, is worth 75 billion rupees (US$ 912 million).

Young people between 18 and 35 years old are the main victims of drug trafficking, given Punjab’s proximity to the "Golden Crescent” (Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran).

The city of Maqboolpura in particular, is known as the village of orphans and widows since most drug abuse victims hail from there.

After alcohol and tobacco, heroin, or "chitta", a synthetic derivative, is the drug of choice, reaching Punjab from Afghanistan via Pakistan, experts point out.

The “Age of drug addicts is a serious and worrisome concern, since 76% of the addicts are in the age group of 14-35 years; between 14 [and] 45 years of age this proportion is 93%,” said Prof Ranjit Singh Ghuman, head of a study commissioned by the Indian Council of Social Science Research.

“About 5% of the addicts got initiated into intoxicants at a very young age, between 7 and 14 years. Significantly, a sizeable majority of the addicts are very poorly educated,” he added.

Compared to other Indian states, unemployment and poverty rates in Punjab, especially in rural areas, are a few percentage points higher.

In fact, for Prof Ghuman, “underemployment, subhuman working conditions, low-paid employment (working poor), economic distress, blurred future and frustration are other important reasons for drug addiction.”

Despite political statements and the rising number of arrests boasted by Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah, people do not trust the government when it comes to curbing drug trafficking.

“As regards the role of the police, 91% [of] respondents are having serious apprehension and reservations,” noted Ghuman.

“Their perception is that due to rampant corruption and political pressure, police lacks seriousness in action and only take selective actions against the small-time drug suppliers, peddlers and drug consumers.

“In their view, the police often hesitate to catch the ‘big fish’, mainly because of the political patronage to the big smugglers and the unholy nexus between some political leaders, some police officials and the big smugglers of drugs.”