Sinking into deep despair of a drug epidemic
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Please Log in to update your video settings How drugs ravage the Punjab
In one of Indias wealthiest states, its estimated that seven out of ten young men are addicted to drugs. Ben Doherty and Alex Ellinghausen investigate. Autoplay OnOff Video feedback Video settings
At a cremation ground at the junction of half a dozen rice paddies, Nikka and Captain crouch in the shade of a banyan tree. All around, farmers are preparing to bring in their crops, herding slow-moving buffalo or tilling fields for the new season.
But Nikka and Captain are oblivious to the bucolic surroundings. They are focused instead on two small vials and needles wrapped in plastic. Theyve come to shoot up.
Dr Rana estimates about 60 per cent of the young men in Punjab are regular drug users, 95 per cent of them on heroin.
Nikka grins as he taps the bottle of buprenorphine, waiting for the drug to run into the syringe below. After taking injection, I am strong and active - before, I feel lazy, I feel in pain, he says.
Struggle: Addicts are treated at Tarn Tarn. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Practised at using one hand, Nikka ties an orange scarf around his arm and roughly jabs the needle into a vein, pushing impatiently on the plunger. It takes him barely five seconds. Advertisement
He carelessly throws the used syringe, stained red with his blood, onto the ground. All around is littered the detritus of previous highs - his and others - the chipped bottles and bent syringes of pharmaceutical addicts, the blackened strips of foil used to smoke the cheap Afghan heroin that has flooded this part of India.
Now high, Nikka begs Captain, who has been slower, for the last of his hit. Rebuffed, he helps Captain push the last few millilitres into his vein, and stands to give a rollicking account of the sensation: I feel good, I am strong, sexual power. My body feels set now.
Damage done: the arms of a user. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Nikkas got a couple of hours like this. I am more powerful than anyone, he declares, lolling his head side to side, but he has an eye, too, to the inevitable crash.
I want to quit, but I cant. Cant. I try very hard to stop, but cant.
What are we doing with our lives? Nothing. Whatever I earn I spend on my addiction.
The ultimate cost: Drug widow Darshan with a photo of her dead son Raju. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Nikka and Captain want to leave. They have heard there are police in the nearby village.
Nikka grows agitated. Give me 100 rupees, he demands angrily, already thinking of his next hit.
An hour before, Dr Rana Ranbir Singh arrives at his office at Tarn Taran Civil Hospital, where there is already a 100-strong crowd pushing against the barred steel doors.
It is a grim gathering: young men, the occasional small boy, a handful of women, even a Sikh holy man, all press against the entrance, held back by armed guards.
They wave white slips of paper, each a prescription for buprenorphine, a substitute medication and a temporary respite from their cravings.
Dr Rana runs the governments rehabilitation clinic at the hospital. He has been away a few days, so today is busier than usual, but he finds the demand for his services only grows. This fertile farming district, near the border with Pakistan, is the epicentre of what has become a drug epidemic in Punjab.
Rahul Gandhi, the scion of Indias ruling family, was here recently, claiming seven in 10 young men in Punjab were on drugs. But the claim was barely believed. Punjab is famous throughout India for the fertility of its soil and the proud, industrious tribe of Sikh warriors who farm it.
But the statistic is probably close to the truth.
Dr Rana estimates about 60 per cent of the young men in Punjab are regular drug users, 95 per cent of them on heroin. Perhaps 20 per cent are, he reckons, completely dependent on the drug. The heroin comes from Afghanistan. Despite international military efforts over a decade, that country is still the worlds poppy nursery, producing about 90 per cent of the globes opium.
Afghan land under poppy cultivation increased 7 per cent last year, and the farm-gate value jumped 133 per cent, contributing $1.5 billion to the war-ravaged nations economy - about a 10th of its gross domestic product.
Punjab is right on the doorstep.
The heroin, a brown powder, is walked over the border into Pakistan, from where it is smuggled into India.
Demand in Punjab has made it expensive. A gram of heroin costs about 1200 rupees ($21.50).
The middle-class sons of Punjabs landowners can afford it, but poorer users cant. Increasingly, they are turning to cheaper blackmarket pharmaceuticals, haphazard cocktails of whatever they can score.
A hit of black-market buprenorphine, like Nikka and Captains, costs 200 rupees - less than $4.
The problem here in Punjab is very serious, Dr Rana says, and the problem is everywhere, it is equal across the society, in the poor families, in the middle-class, among the elite families. And it is as common in the rural belt as in the cities.
He says unless the teenagers who are taking up drugs now can be turned from them, the future for Punjab is bleak.
In 2009, senior government health official Harjit Singh told the Punjab and Haryana High Court: Punjab is in the grip of a drug hurricane which weakens the morale, physique and character of the youth. We are in danger of losing the young generation.
Drugs are, of course, not a problem isolated to Punjab. But 60 per cent of all drug seizures in India are in this border state.
Punjab has in some ways been a victim of its own success. In a state made wealthy through agriculture and enterprise, the emerging generation of young Punjabis has some education, not enough for a high-paying new-economy job but enough that they feel it is beneath them to work the fields like their fathers.
The culture of drug abuse is ingrained here now. During last years state elections, political party officials were even distributing drugs in exchange for votes.
Fifty kilograms of heroin were seized in raids and electoral commission officials also impounded thousands of tablets, drug vials, even cough syrup. The practice of bribing voters with drugs was unique to Punjab, Indias chief electoral commissioner S.Y. Quraishi said.
Signs of addiction are everywhere in the narrow streets of Maqboolpura. The hostile-looking dealers standing on corners, the red-eyed, staggering man arguing with his neighbours in the middle of the street, the boarded-up
homes of families dead or gone. This unhappy place is known as the Village of Widows, for the number of men claimed by drug overdoses. These dozen or so streets are home to an estimated 400 drug widows and nearly 1000 orphans.
For 14 years, Master Ajith Singh and his wife Satpal Kaur have used their converted home and funding from donations to teach 656 drug orphans from 1st to 8th class - roughly six to 13 years old.
Master Singh has graduates studying at university, in the police force or, back at the school, teachers themselves.
These are the victims of the drug tragedies; some children here have lost fathers, some uncles, some have lost multiple members of their families, he says. For the families affected by the drugs problem there is an economic depression, too. The families are in poverty, and it makes the people left behind more vulnerable, to drugs and to other problems.
Darshan lost her husband to drugs and alcohol a decade ago. She cant yet bring herself to openly admit it but the death of her youngest son - Raju was only 20 - three months ago, bore the hallmarks of the same tragedy.
She is living her life, she says, in poverty because of the addictions of her family, and with Rajus death, his children - her grandchildren - have been taken from her by their mother, who could not stand staying in the suburb.
All of Maqboolpura, they are destroying their lives, Darshan says, sitting in her crumbling one-room brick home.
Her neighbour Manveer has lost two husbands to drugs.
Her first partner, the father of her two daughters, was a good man, she says, who worked hard to provide for his family. But when heroin gripped him, he was lost to his family long before he died.
Manveer was widowed before her 35th birthday. Her own father was already dead and she had two daughters to care for.
Needing a family around her to survive, she turned to her late husbands younger brother.
I was not aware that he was also the same kind of man, and that I was going to destroy my life, she says.
This time, the path to addiction was all too familiar. She wished her second husband dead long before an overdose claimed him, too.
But Manveer still holds hope. Her eldest daughter Arthi is a student at Master Singhs school. Precocious at 13, she answers without hesitation when asked what she wants to be when she grows up: Police inspector … I will stop people from becoming addicts. I will fight against addiction in our country.