By Amitava Mukherjee
It is heartening that both the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) , two major contestants in the recently held Punjab assembly poll, have taken note of the drug menace which has been devouring Punjabi society for quite some time and has become the most serious social question that will need to be addressed by the next government.
The Shiromoni Akali Dal (SAD)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) combination has also raised its voice against the malady but being the ruling combine it has been subjected to relentless attacks by the opposition parties over the drug menace issue.
The problem is serious and deep rooted and is likely to cast its spell on the election result. Therefore, Arvind Kejriwal’s claim that the “AAP would break the supply chain of drugs within one month” (after coming to power) sounds a bit bombastic. After all, Kejriwal’s own estimate is that there are 40 lakh drug addicts in Punjab and the supply chain catering to such a huge number of clients must be labyrinthine in character. Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi, basing his calculation on a survey, has also observed that around 70 percent of the Punjabi youth are now addicted to drugs.
But the more alarming news for Punjab is that Afghanistan has been witnessing bumper production of poppy since 2014. Afghanistan and the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa region of Pakistan produce the biggest amount of opium in the world. Afghanistan enjoys another dubious record -- it is the biggest illicit opium production centre in the world producing 4,600 tonnes of the world’s 6,000 tonnes per year.
Most of Afghanistan’s illicit opium production is dumped and processed in Pakistan. Landi Kotal, a small town in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), has become an important entrepot in this business where several refineries have come up for processing Afghan consignments and producing heroin which has now become the most favoured drug among the Punjabi youth. It may be interesting to know that a good number of Chinese chemists are known to have been employed in such refineries.
In spite of earnest efforts by the Indian government and the state government of Punjab, the meandering course of the Ravi and Sutlej -- particularly the 17 kilometre-long unfenced stretch of these two rivers -- is standing in the way of any successful operation against smuggling of drugs into Punjab. In addition continuous diminishing returns from the agricultural sector in the Indian side of Punjab have made farmers susceptible to offers from smugglers operating from Pakistan. Nowadays, the common practice adopted by Pakistani smugglers is to stuff drugs into 18-20 inch-long plastic pipes and hang them across the barbed wire border fences. These are picked up by members from the agricultural community on the Indian side.
The danger lies in the fact that the terrorist-smuggler nexus has penetrated the Indian security apparatus. Immediately after the attack on the Indian Air Force base at Pathankot, doubts were raised about the role of a senior Punjab Police officer. In 2013 and 2014, at least 70 police personnel were found cooperating with drug smugglers and in 2014 alone, 13 police officials, including a Deputy Superintendent of Police, were sacked from service for this reason.
Punjab is now reeling under a pervading drug racket of which heroin trade has the biggest share. According to a survey by the National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre (NDDTC), more than 8.6 lakh people in the state are opioid users with about 2.3 lakh people being opioid dependent.
The NDDTC estimate has come to the conclusion that Rs 7,500 crore worth of opioids are consumed by dependent individuals in Punjab each year. Of this, heroin’s share is 53 percent. Moreover, as much as Rs 1,400 are spent by an individual heroin addict each day on an average while the corresponding figure for an opium addict is Rs 340. Among men belonging to the 18-35 years age group, four out of every 100 are opioid dependent and 15 out of every 100 are opioid users.
If we go into the economics of the drug trade in the Golden Crescent comprising Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, then the enormity of the problem faced by India becomes crystal clear. Afghanistan produces 550-600 tonnes of heroin each year and 10 tonnes of it reach the Indian market via Pakistan. In Pakistan, one kilogram of pure heroin fetches Rs 1-2 lakh. In Indian Punjab, the price jumps to Rs 3 lakh per kilogram. In Delhi, the same amount of heroin is priced around Rs 8-10 lakh and in Mumbai the price shoots up to Rs 15-20 lakh per kilogram.
In the light of a definite linkage between drugs and terrorism in Punjab, the finding by the National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre (NDDTC) that opioids worth Rs 7,500 crore are consumed in Punjab each year has come as a matter of grave concern.
It is no use denying that export of terror and drugs to India is getting direct patronage from successive Pakistani ruling establishments. It is time that all the political parties in Punjab discard hyperbole and put their heads together so that the strategically important state is saved from destruction.
(Amitava Mukherjee is a senior journalist and commentator. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org)