If you go by mainstream media reports, drugs will seem like the most defining feature of Punjab today.
Though the drug addiction numbers in Punjab are worrying, they are nothing like the numbers reported in hysterical media reports.
Punjab isn’t Mexico, and unlike what the film Udta Punjab showed, cash-rich Punjabis aren’t snorting lines of coke off credit cards while listening to hardcore hip-hop music.
For one, there really isn’t any cocaine flowing through Punjab. The Narcotics Control Bureau keeps detailed records of the quantities of drugs seized in each state every year and they give us a good idea of the kinds of drugs coursing through the Punjabi countryside.
It’s quite clear from the graphs that Punjab has the largest number of opium and heroin (heroin is a refined derivative of opium) seizures in the country, whereas it barely registers on the national statistics for other drugs such as cocaine, charas (hashish), and ephedrine.
These figures are reinforced by various surveys that have confirmed that opiods (opium-based drugs like heroin) are the most widely used drugs in Punjab.
This isn’t a coincidence.
Living in the Shadow of the Golden Crescent – The Opium Economy of Afghanistan
The fate of Punjab has always been linked to the regions to its north-west – Afghanistan, the Indus basin, and Iran. The Indus river basin extends from the Kabul river in the west to the Sutlej river in the east, and the region has historically seen the movement of goods and people in one continuum. Economic upheavals in Afghanistan like droughts and famines caused mass migration of people into the more fertile eastern half of the Indus river basin while goods from the east travelled via roads and rivers to Kabul and Tehran.
The partition of British India may have severed the state from its erstwhile hinterland, but the old, well-trodden paths carved into the sandy soil of the land of five rivers have not been forgotten.
The flow of drugs into Punjab is controlled by the opium that the Afghan farmer grows in his field. Afghanistan produces 90 per cent of the world’s heroin, a highly refined product of opium. It lies on the Golden Crescent – a belt running across the mountainous regions of three nations, namely Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan – which is the leading opium producing region in the world today.
Traditionally, the opium produced in Afghanistan was routed first to Iran. From there it moved westwards into the Balkans and further into Western Europe. This was the famous ‘Balkan Route’ for smuggling. With the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980, Iran tightened its borders and the Balkan Route was closed. Afghan farmers reduced the cultivation of opium and took to other crops.
Around the same time, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and started off a war that lasted till 1988. By the time the war ended, Afghanistan was an abjectly impoverished country. So it was only in the mid-1980s that Afghan farmers once again began to cultivate opium on a large scale, for survival. And with the Balkan Route now closed, the best way of getting the heroin into the international market was through Pakistan and into Indian Punjab.
The First Post in the Civilised World
While heroin was, and still is, smuggled all across the border states of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), Rajasthan, and Gujarat, Punjab emerged as the favorite spot for smuggling because of the nature of its border with Pakistan, its location, and infrastructure.
Punjab shares a 550km-long border with Pakistan, and as compared to other border states of J&K and Rajasthan, it has an excellent network of roads and railways right up to the international border. Additionally, large portions of Punjab’s border with Pakistan are classified as ‘riverine’ with the rivers Ravi and Sutlej forming the border with Pakistan for several kilometres, especially along Gurdaspur and Ferozepur districts. These stretches are almost impossible to patrol. Moreover, locals and famers living along the border are induced into the smuggling network by getting them addicted to the drugs. This is one reason why the drug epidemic is the worst along the border regions of Punjab.
As soon as the drugs enter Punjab, they find their way to the urban centres in close proximity to the border, like Ludhiana and Chandigarh, and eventually to Delhi through the well-established road and rail network of Punjab. While these cities may have some consumers, the bulk of the heroin gets smuggled out of India and into the global drug market, where it travels to party destinations such as Brooklyn (the United States), Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), and Los Angeles (the United States). In this journey of the drug from its source in Afghanistan to its destination in the major urban centres of the world, Punjab is the crucial node linking the source and the end user. It is the point from where the smuggled heroin leaves the war-torn “Af-Pak belt”, used to denote Afghanistan and Pakistan, and first gets access to efficient logistics and transportation, getting integrated, through rail, road, air, and shipping networks, into the global drug economy.
Punjab is where the heroin first enters the civilised world.
By 1996, the year in which militancy ended in Punjab, opium production in Afghanistan had risen to 2,700 tonnes, a record high. Under international pressure, the Taliban government was forced to crack down on opium farmers, which affected cross-border heroin trade. As a result, there was a dip in the amount of heroin coming into India. However, once the US invaded Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11, the Taliban was no longer bound by international community sanctions to keep Afghan opium production under control. Moreover, it needed money to fight the Americans. So the Taliban once again encouraged Afghan farmers to crank up opium production to fund its fight against the US. From this point, till today, Afghan opium production has only moved in one direction – a steep north.
Heroin seized in India: the greatest spurts are seen in the late 1980s, with the end of the Soviet-Afghan war and the battered Afghan economy resorting to large-scale opium production to survive. This period also coincides with the peak of militancy in Punjab. The consolidation of the Taliban in the mid-1990s saw a dip in heroin seizures. But after the US invasion of Afghanistan, the numbers begin to rise again.
From 1994 to 2001, the Taliban mostly kept Afghan opium production under control. However, after the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2002, opium production went through the roof. This pattern is almost an exact copy of what had happened to opium production in Vietnam after the US invaded that country.
Interestingly, the other major drug used in India, cocaine, is sourced mainly from South and Central America and finds its way to destinations like Goa and Mumbai. Unlike heroin, the cocaine coming from Latin America is meant to be consumed within India, the country being the end market in this case, not a transit point.
The drug enters India mainly through port cities in Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu, and rarely makes it as far north as Punjab. Seizures along the Punjab border, consisting mostly of heroin, underline the reverse flow of heroin out of India and into the global drug networks.
Seizures of cocaine are the highest in the coastal states that include some of India’s major sea ports – Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, and New Delhi, with its busy airport. Metro cities like New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, and Bengaluru are also the largest consumers.
Burning Up the Neighbourhood – Everyone Suffers
All the heroin getting pumped out of Afghanistan has to travel across the breadth of Pakistan before it makes its way into Indian Punjab and from there to the great cities of the world.
What, then, of Pakistan? Why does one hear of a drug epidemic only in Indian Punjab?
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Pakistan has a staggering 4.7 million heroin addicts in a population of about 190 million. This makes it the most heroin-addicted country in the world. The restive Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province, bordering Afghanistan, is the worst affected with an estimated 11 per cent of its population addicted to heroin. Nearly 40 per cent of all Pakistani heroin addicts have also been reported to be HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) positive due to the intravenous nature of heroin consumption.
This is not all. Since the US-led invasion, Afghan heroin has also been traveling north across the former Commonwealth of Independent States and into Russia, where the addiction has become an epidemic. Every year, roughly 30,000 Russians die from heroin-related causes. The country has an estimated 2.5 million heroin addicts. In what can only be called a cruel twist of fate, the consequences of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan that sparked off the Afghan opium production boom in the first place have come back to claim the flower of Russia’s youth.
Meanwhile in Iran, which shares a nearly 1,000km-long border with Afghanistan, the number of opium addicts has doubled since 2011, with an estimated 2.8 million addicts reported in 2017. The country has a population of about 75 million. The United Nations has now recognised that Iran has one of the worst opium addiction rates in the world, and the authoritarian regime in Tehran, despite its best efforts, has been unable to stop the Afghan opium from spilling into the country.
In a desperate move, the Iranian government is now considering decriminalising drugs so that it can instead provide diluted drugs to addicts, thereby eliminating drug traffickers while attempting to slowly wean away heavy drug abusers – a strategy that was, until 2016, also employed by the Rajasthan government in India.
Afghanistan is the opium tinderbox of the world and it is currently on fire. It is also taking the entire neighborhood down with it. So, the next time you think that the war in faraway Afghanistan does not affect your life in any way, think again.
So, What Are the Punjabis Smoking Now?
The media hype over Punjab’s drug epidemic peaked around 2014. Within a few months, Bollywood saw an opportunity, put together a few sleepy script writers who hastily typed out a juvenile storyline about a hip-hop star, a (somewhat) corrupt cop, a migrant labourer, a pretty doctor, and a mysterious drug factory. A series of Enid Blyton-esque adventures later – with the climax involving the hero, Diljit Dosanjh, slipping into the drug factory by switching off its power supply – the film stutters to a confused happy ending, leaving the viewer none the wiser about what the hype was all about.
So, what has happened to the Punjab drug epidemic now?
The answer is, two things – Punjabi society has got the upper hand in its prolonged fight against drugs, and second, elections ended in 2017 with the opposition successfully coming to power on an anti-drugs campaign.
The attention of the mainstream media arrived almost a decade after the drug epidemic in Punjab reached its zenith. By then, Punjabi civil society and successive state governments had for long been battling to save lives from drowning in Afghan heroin.
One of many such unsung heroes of Punjab was the indomitable Brij Bedi, husband of Pondicherry governor and former Indian Police Service officer, Kiran Bedi. Brij Bedi worked tirelessly in his hometown of Amritsar to help rehabilitate drug users. In particular, his work in Maqboolpura – the infamous widow’s colony of Amritsar that suffered an extraordinarily high incidence of drug-related deaths – helped turn around Punjab’s fight against drugs. The old-timers remember how Bedi would, without fail, at exactly 7.15pm every day call into “Ajj Da Vivaad” – a popular talk show aired on Doordarshan Punjabi – and in his trademark chaste Punjabi deliver a rambling, heart-wrenching monologue on the insidious menace of drugs creeping into Punjabi society, and the need for everybody to come together and collectively battle it. In his efforts, Mr. Bedi was not alone. Numerous other community and religious leaders committed their lives to combat the menace.
India’s security apparatus also responded with increased patrolling along the border. Greater coordination between Punjab Police and Border Security Force (BSF) led to a spike in the number of drug seizures. In 2013, the BSF began using advanced All Terrain Vehicles to patrol the marshy areas along the border. Since 2017, speed boats have also been sought to be deployed by the BSF’s water wing in the riverine tracts along the Punjab border.
With increased surveillance along the Punjab border, drug traffickers are now being forced to use other routes. Stretches along the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat are believed to be the main hotspots of smuggling now.
Manufacturing Hysteria – The Case of Punjab’s Missing Drug Addicts
What really brought Punjab’s drug problem under the national spotlight were certain unconfirmed reports that claimed one in every five youths in Punjab was addicted to drugs. The reports were mostly based on an affidavit submitted in the Punjab assembly by a senior civil servant. As election fever gripped Punjab, Rahul Gandhi was quoted as saying 70 per cent of Punjab’s youth were addicted to drugs. This figure was then picked up by the film Udta Punjab and it stuck.
In all the hysteria, what nobody bothered to clarify was that the umbrella term ‘drugs’ being used in various studies on Punjab included all intoxicants such as alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana, opium, and heroin. So, in many sample surveys, anyone responding in the affirmative to having consumed beer and cigarettes was classified as a drug user.
While alcohol consumption has always been widespread in Punjab, the consumption of opium – colloquially known as feem, doda, or bhukki, has long been part of the culture of north-western India. In Rajasthan, for instance, the sale and consumption of doda, an opium derivative, had been legal and it was even sold through government-licensed vendors till 2016.
It should be recalled that Union minister Jaswant Singh courted controversy back in 2007 when he served opium to guests at his ancestral village in Rajasthan. What Singh was, in fact, doing was performing an ancient, and mostly harmless, ritual that has been a part of the culture of the region.
The debate over opium consumption in many ways mirrors that over cannabis consumption – each of the substances is an integral part of certain Indic traditions. Heroin, on the other hand, being a highly refined form of opium, is not just highly addictive but also deadly. To put the potency of opium and heroin in perspective: opium is distilled to produce morphine, which is just 12 per cent weight by volume of opium. The morphine is then further distilled until it is reduced to one-fourth of the quantity. This is heroin. By comparison, the opium commonly consumed in north-west India is simply a diluted version of poppy husk.
So how many people in Punjab were actually addicted to hard drugs like heroin?
A 2015 study conducted by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in association with a non-governmental organisation estimated that out of the state’s total population of 28 million, about 232,856 individuals were addicted to opioids including both opium and heroin – roughly 0.8 per cent of the population. Further, of these opioid users, only 53 per cent were addicted to the deadly heroin and 33 per cent were using it intravenously. While this figure for the number of opioid users was certainly among the highest in the country, it was a far cry from the 70 per cent being cited by clickbait media outlets. Even accounting for the notorious ‘chitta’ – a generic term for a wide variety of synthetic drugs including methamphetamine – the total number of users of hard drugs (excluding alcohol, tobacco, bhang) in Punjab could not have exceeded 1 per cent of the population at the height of the drug epidemic.
The figure of 70 per cent, however, stuck and the resultant hysteria was milked to the full by everyone from Bollywood to media to political parties. It was no coincidence that the Punjab drug epidemic suddenly burst into public attention barely a year before the state was headed for assembly elections. Captain Amarinder Singh of the Congress publicly promised to rid the state of the drug menace within four weeks of being elected. The election won, the newly elected Chief Minister later clarified that when he said ‘drug menace’, he was referring to synthetic drugs like chitta and not opioids, which have traditionally been part of society.
The Road Ahead
Punjab isn’t the only Indian victim of Afghan heroin. The neighbouring state of J&K has long been known to suffer from one of the worst addiction rates in the country. Manipur, on the country’s eastern border, has a similar tale to tell. The only difference is that Manipuri heroin comes from the Golden Triangle (another global heroin production nerve centre on the Myanmar-Thailand border) instead of the Golden Crescent. With this exception, everything remains the same as in the case of Punjab and Kashmir – a long and violent insurgency, a society emotionally and psychologically brutalised through violence, and economic stagnation. It is India’s misfortune that it is geographically sandwiched between the Golden Crescent and the Golden Triangle. And India’s neglected border pockets are paying the price.
That Punjab’s largely agrarian economy has been stagnant for nearly two decades is by now common knowledge. Diminishing returns from agriculture led to a wave of overseas migration as peasants desperately sought other means of livelihood.
Punjab spent nearly Rs 20,000 crore in battling a decade-and-a-half long insurgency that left the state bankrupt. Today, nearly the entire state GDP goes in making the interest payments on this amount alone. Several big-ticket infrastructure projects announced in Punjab never took off. For instance, in 2007, it was announced that a mega eight-lane expressway connecting Pathankot on the northern edge of Punjab to Ajmer in Rajasthan would be constructed, thereby allowing the state easy access to the Kandla port in Gujarat. This was supposed to greatly boost exports and industrialisation. More than a decade later, nothing materialised of the said expressway.
A person born in Punjab in 1918, exactly a 100 years ago, would have been 29 years old in 1947, when the partition riots claimed close to half a million lives and displaced over a million others. A person born in 1948, just after the partition riots in Punjab, would have been 31 years old in 1980 – the year the insurgency in Punjab began. This person would also have lived through three wars in which enemy planes flew over his house and enemy bombs fell in his fields. By the time the insurgency ended, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives, hardly a household remained in Punjab that had not lost a loved one to violence. A person born in 1996, the year the insurgency ended, would be 22 years old today and only beginning to navigate her way through a society scarred by violence and drug abuse. No generation born in the last 100 years in Punjab has been spared the trauma of extreme, horrific violence. No other state in India, perhaps with the exception of Kashmir, has been subject to such a prolonged, unending state of crisis.
And yet there exists a disconnect between the popular perception of Punjab and the state’s reality.
Nothing highlights this disconnect more than the fact that in the year 1995, while Aditya Chopra was presenting to an enraptured nation his Bollywood magnum opus of the happy Punjabi family wedding in the backdrop of swaying yellow mustard fields of the Punjabi countryside, a car bomb ripped through Punjab’s capital, Chandigarh, killing the chief minister, Beant Singh, along with 17 others. That same year, Afghanistan dumped its largest ever haul of heroin into the Punjabi countryside – a poison that would soon be injected by the violence-scarred youth of Punjab.
Despite all this, Punjab stands. The state remains the single-largest contributor to the nation’s pool of wheat and rice and still sends a large segment of its youth – both men and women – to guard the nation’s borders as soldiers. The state has among the best Human Development Indices in the country as well as among the highest rates of life expectancy. On all almost all metrics used to compare Indian states, Punjab, for all its suffering, ranks among the best in the country.
What the state needs is assistance in the form of investment in industry and infrastructure, as well as fiscal relief in the form of waiving off its huge debt burden. It has seen off the worst of yet another adversity thrown its way and, with a little help, can reclaim its rightful place as the driver of India’s march to the future. In the longer run, India would need to invest in the peace and stability of its neighbourhood and strengthen trade relations with them so that its remote, landlocked border pockets can diversify their economies.