Punjab’s Season of Election and Addiction

Politics

Punjab’s Season of Election and Addiction

Illustration: Akshita Monga

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s Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a rally in Faridkot on January 29, decrying how “the leader of one party is disrespecting Punjab’s youths by calling them drug addicts”, 118 kilometres away in a dimly lit room in the city of Sangrur, 65-year-old recovering heroin and bhuki (poppy husk) addict, Ameer Singh, laughed at his assertions.

Ameer Singh is a leathery old man, who has spent a lifetime casting votes for drugs. He tells me about the time when the Election Commission wasn’t as stringent, when in his village of Akbarpur, the sarpanch would sit under a tree, next to a mountain of bhuki, and call them all out. He would tell them in no unclear words, pointing to the poppy husk, “Either take this or this,” signalling toward his chappal. Most of them, including Ameer Singh, took the bhuki and voted where he directed them to.

Today, as one of seven occupants of the 15-bed Red Cross-run drug rehab centre in Sangrur, Ameer Singh is done with both elections and drug addiction. The 65-year-old is shifty, constantly adjusting his thin frame in a chair across from me. His worn-out beige kurta provides for most of the light in the dark room and his eyes never once turn toward me, always focusing sheepishly at the facility’s director, Mohan Sharma, who is sitting next to him.

Six days before I meet him at the rehab centre, Ameer Singh’s treatment was complete. But he is still here, going through the daily grind of a medical check-up, candle-making, training in basic computers, meditation, therapy, yoga, and a lot of sleep. He is showing no signs of wanting to leave the centre. A lifelong addict and seasoned voter, he has made a pact with his son: regardless of the status of the treatment, the son will ensure that his father is not discharged from the facility until the elections are over. “This season of drugs is too much for any person to handle, leave alone a former addict,” Ameer Singh tells me.

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The BJP and Akali have been in power in Punjab for 10 years, and among other things, have seen the state’s drug-addiction rate balloon to six times the world average.

Credit: Rana Sajid Hussain/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Image

As we sit in a large bare room on a slow winter afternoon, the sounds of the market come at us. I can hear Congress heavyweight Captain Amarinder Singh’s hype song blaring from the speakers outside. The air in Sangrur, and all of Punjab, is thick with rhetoric, desperation, and a whiff of hope for change, but Ameer Singh is breathing none of it.

“Nothing has changed. Nowadays, the village heads keep the drugs in their houses and distribute them more discreetly. Perhaps Modiji should look harder,” he says, a look of weariness crossing his face.

The BJP and Akali have been in power in Punjab for 10 years, and among other things, have seen the state’s drug-addiction rate balloon to six times the world average. The Aam Aadmi Party and Congress have made drug abuse a big part of their election campaign, while the incumbent Akali and BJP coalition have used it as a mechanism to install a siege mentality. Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal is leading this brigade, actually announcing that only 0.06 per cent out of the 2.77 crore population of Punjab is found abusing drugs, when an affidavit filed by his own party pegs the number at 16 per cent.

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In my days in Punjab, that is one refrain I hear constantly. There are no jobs. Everyone has ample free time to do whatever what they want, which in most cases is the easiest available drug – heroin.

“The Akalis, BJP, Congress, whoever it is, no one does anything about the drug problem. My MLA was from Congress and the Akalis and BJP ruled the state, but no one did anything to stop the drug supply,” says Jitendra, a 25-year-old recovering heroin addict, who has joined us in the room.

Jitendra’s story is the one we’re all too familiar with by now. He started buying heroin from his weekly allowance over a year ago, when one of his friends introduced him to the intoxicant. As Jitendra’s intake gradually increased, he started outspending his allowance. The dealer convinced Jitendra that he would supply him drugs for free, if he got him more customers. So he started using his friends as bait to make sure that the dealer wouldn’t cut him off. This is the standard Ponzi scheme of drug addiction in Punjab, a circle which keeps growing exponentially and envelopes the youth.

Mohan Sharma, the director of the rehab centre, has been quiet until now. He is a man tired of speaking and fighting against this enormous tide which is destroying the state. He has fought this battle for years now and written extensively about the topic in local newspapers, but he knows nothing will change until the approach changes.

“The biggest problem is that the police arrests those in possession of drugs and jails them for a year while the suppliers roam free. The addicts are the victims, not the perpetrators of the drug menace. Give them jobs and no one would waste time on drugs,” he says, the tiredness apparent in his voice.

In my days in Punjab, that is one refrain I hear constantly. There are no jobs. Factories like Avon, Hero Cycles, and many others, which provided jobs, have shut shop due to issues with the Akalis in recent years, bringing the total number of closed factories to 18,770 in the state since they came to power. Everyone has ample free time to do whatever what they want, which in most cases is the easiest available drug – heroin.

Outside the stillness of this room, the afternoon has given way to evening. Sharma gets up to change and heads toward the tiny garden for the daily therapy session. It’s time for Ameer Singh to go too. These are his last few days at the centre. Come February 5, the day after election and drug season is over, he will finally return home and resume his life. But for now, along with Jitendra and six other inmates, he will join Sharma in the fading light of the day to resume their fight to get back control over their lives.

The fight against the system, however, is left to whoever has the wherewithal to take it up.

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