Let Us Pray That Maqboolpura Is The Only “Village Of Widows” In Punjab

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By Dr. Bikkar Singh Lalli

Throughout the border state of Punjab, whether in villages or cities, drugs have become a scourge. Opium is prevalent, refined as heroin or other illegal substances. Schoolboys sometimes eat small black balls of opium paste, with tea, before classes. Synthetic drugs are popular among those too poor to afford  heroin. An overwhelming majority of addicts are between the ages of 15 and 35, according to one study, with many of them unemployed and frustrated by unmet expectations.  Roughly 60 percent of all illicit drugs confiscated in India are seized in Punjab. Yet when Punjab held state elections this year, the candidates rarely spoke about drug abuse. In fact, India’s Election Commission said that some political workers were actually giving away drugs to try to buy votes. More than 110 pounds of heroin and hundreds of thousands of bottles of bootleg liquor were seized in raids. During the elections, party workers in some districts distributed coupons that voters could redeem at pharmacies. Recently I heard an activist from Punjab, stating that even in SGPC elections liquor was lavishly distributed for buying votes.

The problem is prevalent in middle-class enclaves, where some users are hooked on heroin. One impoverished neighborhood of Amritsar, called Maqboolpura, is known as the Village of Widows — because so many young men have died of drug abuse. “Drugs are available everywhere,” said Ajit Singh, who has spent 13 years running a school for poor children affected by drug abuse. Of the school’s 656 students, roughly 70 percent have lost a parent to drugs. Maqboolpura offers a window into a drug epidemic that government and U.N. officials say is gripping young men in the state of Punjab. The trend, obviously, is driven by unemployment and frustrated economic expectations, as well as the ready availability of smuggled Afghan heroin and other pain-relieving drugs known as opioids that are manufactured in India and often sold without prescriptions in pharmacies.

The youth gets lured into the world of drugs by first tasting bhuki, which grows like wild grass and is freely available in the fields. Peer influence, thrill-seeking and curiosity about drugs are some of  the main factors promoting drug abuse among youth. Once hooked, these young men graduate to cough syrups like phansydril and corex, proxyvon, , diszepham tablets. From this stage they proceed to more potent menu of opium, charas, ganja, mandrax, smack, heroin, lizards’ tails and many more substance like quaint application of shoe polish, smelling petrol and consuming iodex spread on bread to get that heady feeling. Many chemists are surviving on addicts as they provide drugs without prescription. “Injectible intoxicants, tablets and syrups are easily available. It is ironic that most of Punjab’s over 12,000 villages have chemist shops even when they might not have school teachers, even schools or health centres.

When , during a visit to Chandigarh, Rahule Gandhi said that “Seven out of 10 youth in Punjab have drug problems. Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal blamed the central government for failure to properly guard the India-Pakistan border in Punjab, thus, resultantly making the state emerge as main transit route as well as a hub for drugs smuggling. The Akali-BJP govt. is trying  to downplay the grave situation of drug abuse while accusing the Congress of misleading the public.But the NCB, India’s apex agency to check drug menace, does not agree on the issue with the Punjab government. The tragedy is that even the congress leadership, when in government, paid a lip service to this epidemic.

Three years ago, a state health official, Harjit Singh,  warned in a court affidavit that Punjab risked losing a whole generation to drugs  Punjab’s reluctance to treat the drug situation as a full-blown crisis is partly because the state government itself is dependent on revenue from alcohol sales. Roughly 8,000 government liquor stores operate in Punjab, charging a tax on every bottle — an excise that represents one of the government’s largest sources of revenue. India’s comptroller found that liquor consumption per person in Punjab rose 59 percent between 2005 and 2010.

Attempts in the past decade to tighten security along India’s border with Pakistan drove up the price of heroin to  $45 a gram, and pushed people toward over-the-counter pharmaceuticals that produce a similar euphoric high. Drug trafficking has increased by at last 30-40 percent in the last year ever since cross-border civilian movement increased between India and Pakistan. Drug seizures have increased by 200 percent over just the past two years in Punjab, which accounts for more than 50 percent of all heroin seized by Indian police annually. A massive seizure, 116 kg with a street value $24 million,, from Anoop Singh Kahlon and Kulwinder Singh Kahlon, underscore the epidemic of drug trade in this state, which according to govt., is an “oasis of peace” .It is believed that Indian police and law-makers are deeply complicit in both smuggling and distribution, netting millions of dollars in ill-gotten proceeds. Only a few days ago Saji Mohan, an IPS officer, a narcotic chief from Chandigarh, was sentenced to 13 years prison , for selling heroin. “It’s basically the police who are smuggling half the drugs in the state. If they confiscate 100 packets, police show 50 to the press and let the other 50 back into the market.”

There are some cultural and traditional roadblocks in handling the drug  menace. Punjab has a macho culture, very prone to consumerism, violence and showing off. When a Punjabi gets rich , he buys a SUB, a gun, and gets high. Rates of drug-related crimes in Punjab are almost 10 times the national average for India. “In Punjab, it appears as if we’re sitting on a time bomb that can explode at any time,” says Dr. J.P.S. Bhatia, who is operating a rehabilitation clinic in the city of Amritsar. Once a vibrant Punjab ushered in the Green Revolution ,now desperately needs another revolution under a new and pragmatic, unselfish and un-corruptible crop of leaders.

We, residing in cozy houses in Canada, must also feel extremely concerned about the deteriorating law and order and economic situation in Punjab. Because what happens in Punjab does impact ,directly or indirectly the psyche  of Indo-Canadian youth in Canada,  More than a 100 Indo-Canadian young men have lost their lives in BC gangland violence-revenge-retribution, alone not to talk about other cities of Canada where there have been some stray incidents of Indo-Canadian gang related violence. And still there seems to be no end to it. Every week one finds more lives lost for this reason.

Change will  start with education and awareness of what is going on in the community. If we want to eliminate youth crime  we need to learn more about youth and crime as well. The first generation parents work too hard and long to fulfill their families’ economic needs and they have little time to spend with their growing kids. The adolescents feel ignored and dejected and on top of it they need special attention because of their social adjustment needs in a new society . Apart from socio-economic reasons for ongoing gang war there is one issue that drive them the most-it’s sheer greed. It is ultra greed for making easy money that drives these youngsters to fall in the deadly trap-a trap from where there is no way out. We, ,the parents or grandparents , must find time to talk to our children, and  warn then that if they get stuck with a gang  hen the only way out is either a jail or a death.

Bikkar Lalli is a Surrey-based writer.

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