Punjab's drug menace: 'I wanted my son to die'

Image caption,
Lakshmi Devi's son died due to a drug overdose

The northern Indian state of Punjab has witnessed a sharp increase in the number of drug-related deaths this year. BBC Punjabi's Arvind Chhabra investigates why the drug menace has become worse in the state.

"He was my only son, but I had started wishing that he would die… And now, I cry the whole night with his photograph in my hand," says 55-year-old Lakshmi Devi.

Her son, Ricky Lahoria, recently died of a drug overdose. He was 25.

His was one of 60 deaths linked to drug abuse in Punjab between January and June 2018, according to official estimates. In comparison, 30 people died in drug-related incidents in all of 2017.

Police officials say that the number is likely to increase when they release data for the second half of 2018.

Drugs have been a scourge in Punjab for years now - once a transit point on the drug route, the state has now become a major consumer base.

Punjab's health minister Brahm Mohindra told the BBC his government had reduced the inflow of drugs into the state. But he could not explain why drugs had claimed more lives in 2018 than in previous years.

"It's not clear what concoction is causing [the] deaths. But so many deaths have happened. It is a serious and unfortunate thing," he said.

The All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi conducted the first comprehensive study in 2015 to estimate the magnitude of drug addiction in Punjab - and the report concluded that there were more than 200,000 addicts in the state.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Drug deaths in Punjab have soared in 2018

Ms Devi says Ricky started using drugs when he was still in school and, eventually, he dropped out.

In the early days, he was addicted to cough syrups and injections but he gradually turned to heroin, locally known as chitta.

At one point, his mother recalls, Ricky wanted to quit and even asked her for help. But she did not know that a rehab centre was an option.

"I just took him to a regular hospital, where he died after three days," she says.

'Champagne of intoxicants'

Data from various government departments shows that the problem seems to have got worse in recent years.

According to police records, 303kg of heroin was seized from the beginning of 2018 until 15 October. Only 191kg of heroin was seized from January to December 2017.

The BBC spoke to police officers, border security forces and intelligence officials to understand how drugs are distributed and consumed in the state.

Media caption,
The cost of Punjab's heroin epidemic

They say the most commonly abused drugs in Punjab are the three opium derivatives - raw opium, poppy husk and heroin - followed by medications sold over the counter.

But addicts often see heroin as the "champagne of intoxicants". Like champagne, heroin is costly. One gram costs between 4000 ($56; £43) to 6000 rupees - an addict usually consumes half a gram to two grams in a single day.

While "misuse of pharmaceuticals" is more common in cities, heroin is "more prevalent in rural areas", says Sukhchain Singh, the police commissioner of Ludhiana city.

Despite its hefty price tag, heroin remains popular among addicts regardless of social class and income. Police told the BBC that this was because many of them also turned to peddling as a source of income.

Others simply steal to support their habit.

"Our jewellery and household goods started vanishing as he would take away and sell whatever items he could lay his hands on," one woman, whose son died due to addiction, told the BBC.

The porous border

The border fence that separates India and Pakistan is clearly visible from the rooftops of houses in Dhanoa Kalan village. Border security forces and police officers can be seen patrolling the streets and some of them are dressed as civilians.

Image caption,
Sukhdev Singh says famers often find white packets containing drugs in their fields

The village is home to about 1,400 adults and about 150 of them cultivate farm land beyond the border fence, which puts their fields in no man's land.

So these farmers cross the border almost every day and they are searched by the security forces when they return. Sometimes, they find packets of drugs in their fields.

"Last year, a farmer spotted some packets containing a white powder and he informed border security officers," says Sukhdev Singh, a former village chief.

Mr Singh says this has happened a few times. "We don't know who does it and how," he adds.

Security officers say smugglers often hurl packets of drugs across the border - and some farmers help them. Farmers also make cavities in their tools to hide the drugs, making it hard to detect them.

"All that the farmers have to do is carry these packets to their homes. Once it's inside Indian territory, couriers pick up these packets from the farmers," says an Indian intelligence officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Security forces routinely seize drugs at the India-Pakistan border

The couriers, he adds, then transport the packets to distributors in different cities. Police say they have discovered tunnels along the border that are used by smugglers.

The entire process relies on secrecy - most of those who are involved don't know who the kingpin is or even the names of couriers or distributors. All of this makes it hard to trace the smugglers who are running the operation, say security officials.

International network

About 20 battalions of India's Border Security Force (BSF) guard the border. But officers say smugglers sneak in through gaps in the fence or during dense fog in the winter.

In May 2017, police in Ludhiana city revealed that some farmers had Sim cards from Pakistan so that they could talk to smugglers across the border.

In July the following year, customs officers in Amritsar city seized packets of heroin concealed in the empty wagons attached to a goods train that had arrived from Pakistan.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Gangs often place pipes along the border fence to smuggle drugs

"Most of the heroin comes from Afghanistan to India via Pakistan," says Rajesh Kumar Jaiswal, inspector general of the Punjab police force that investigates drug smuggling.

Punjab has become a major part of the so-called opium drug route that is now used for transporting heroin as well. Officials say smugglers use different routes to enter India, choosing between Punjab, Rajasthan or Indian-administered Kashmir.

"If there's pressure on the Punjab border then they shift to Rajasthan and if there's pressure there, they move elsewhere," Mr Jaiswal adds. "While [the] India-Pakistan border has been the usual route, we have seized narcotic consignments even from Delhi. And they could be arriving in Delhi from any border."

Nexus with security forces

The local police and security agencies have also been accused of helping smugglers.

In June 2016, the federal government's junior home minister, Kiren Rijiju, said in parliament that 68 employees of the Punjab police and other security forces were arrested due to their involvement in the drug trade.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Middlemen are also frequently arrested in different cities of Punjab

Two deputy superintendents of police have also been arrested in recent months on similar charges.

Senior officers acknowledge the problem, adding that they are taking strict action against such officers.

So, what is the solution?

Health officials say the state needs to open more rehab centres for addicts as there are too few existing ones. While there are 90 private rehab centres, there are only 50 that are run by the government.

The government has been running awareness campaigns in schools and colleges. But most families in rural areas do not know about rehab centres or how they can turn lives around. And the stigma associated with drugs often stops people from seeking help.

There are also attempts to understand what drives the youth of Punjab to drugs.

One survey of drug addiction, conducted by the Society for Promotion of youth and masses in the state said the biggest reason for people to start trying drugs was "fun", followed by "peer pressure". A second study, conducted by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences also pointed to peer pressure.

"Punjab needs a three-pronged strategy to reduce supply, demand and consumption," says Dr D Basu, a psychiatrist who has studied drug addiction in the state.

Until then, he adds, stories like Ms Devi's will remain all too familiar.

"[Ricky] would sell whatever he could lay his hands on to buy drugs," Ms Devi says. "I wanted him to lead a normal life, have a family and earn enough for them. I felt so helpless, so broken whenever he became unconscious after taking drugs. He would forget where he was and what he was doing.

"In those moments, I would just wish and pray that he would die. But now I regret my words."

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