Drugs problem and women in Punjab

Substance abuse has been defined as the use of a drug or other substance for a non-medical use, with the aim of producing some type of ‘mind-altering’ effect on the user. The non medical use of habit-forming drugs is not a new phenomenon. Its extent and more certainly, its pattern and trends may have differed, but it has been with us for generations. However, the problem, in recent times, has assumed dangerous proportions. Among young people, the drug abuse has become more or less a part of their sub-culture, their way of life.

The problem of drug abuse among the youth in Punjab, one of India’s wealthiest states, is fast becoming an epidemic. The local government had estimated in 2009 that two-thirds of all rural households in Punjab had at least one drug addict. A study by a state university claims that almost 70% of young men are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Punjab has had a drugs problem for many years, but the fear is that things there have recently become much worse. All sectors of society have been affected, including ones the least expected. There was a time when there was prosperity in this state; people were so energetic doing things, trying new things. But this is now in such a sad state. The map of Punjab has changed. It’s as if the State is sitting on a time bomb that can explode at any time.

The drugs problem is Punjab has been rooted in several factors – economic, political, geographical and social – each contributing in their own way – to destroy the fabric of the State. While Punjab is one of the wealthiest parts of India, its high unemployment rate, slowing economy and proximity to Pakistan and Afghanistan makes its young men highly vulnerable to addiction to illegal narcotics, particularly opium, hashish and heroin. In the past two decades, Punjab has become a principal smuggling route for drugs from Afghanistan, ultimately destined for Europe, but much of the product has found an eager market in India. The magnitude of the problem can be understood from a report in the Washington Post, that the town of Maqboolpura, outside Amritsar, near the Pakistan border, has been so devastated by the deadly scourge of drug abuse that it has earned the sobriquet “the place of widows.” This is due to a variety of reasons. One is the poor quality of education in Punjab that makes graduates incapable of making the cut for the few high-skill jobs that are available. At the same time, they are also unsuited to the low-skill industrial jobs for which urban people are preferred as they are more tuned to industrial or corporate work culture. For those seeking non-farm jobs, very few are available due to the process of deindustrialisation that is happening in the state. For example, there were 127 textile processing units in Amritsar in 1990. There are now only 20.Unemployment of Punjab’s educated rural youth has left them with little to do – indulging in drugs possibly provides a way to while away the time. But time alone fails to explain the inclination towards drugs. In other parts of India, unemployment has led many young men to engage in politics, or ‘timepass’ – a term indicating their sense of aimlessness and dislocation as they while away the time by wandering, chatting to friends, going to the tea stall, etc. In the case of Punjab, however, it is the reaction to unemployment of those who enjoy a fair degree of prosperity in both financial and cultural terms that may be the influencing factor. When met with the issue of unemployment, this produces, in some cases, an outcome of confusion and even depression.

Dangerous neighbours and porous borders are only a fraction of Punjab’s drug problem. India itself contributes massively to the problem. Geographically, Punjab is in proximity to international drug trafficking zone called ‘Golden Crescent’. The state has approximately 553 kms. of international borders with Pakistan, comprising the districts of Gurdaspur, Amritsar, Tara Taran and Firozepur. The border district of Firozepur touches Pakistan border on the north, Faridkot and Moga districts at the east and Muktsar district at south sides. The problems of drug abuse, distillization of illegal and spurious liquor is much high in border area region. The synoptic drugs have also become a common feature of society especially among the youngsters, both literate and illiterate. The bulk of the world’s heroin now comes from Afghanistan, and its main route into India is through Punjab, via Pakistan. It is a heavily guarded frontier, but cross-border gangs know well how to exploit gaps in the fence.

The relationship between poverty and drug abuse is a complex phenomenon and is affected by many contributing factors. Poverty plays a significant role in motivating people to become drug abusers. Beyond the insufficiency of money, poverty develops certain mindset, activities, behaviors and life conditions. These attitudes and conditions can contribute toward drug usage. Poverty deprives the people from material resources due to lack of sufficient income and as a result loose prestige and status in the society. Those living in poverty adopt different life style and value systems than rich ones. Drug education programmes and employment opportunities can lead to human development.
Corruption over the years ate into the social fabric like cancer. Today, the sole value system in society is money and nobody questions anyone about its source. The breakup of the family, corruption in society, the failure to develop at the required pace, the petering away of the Green Revolution and the resulting unemployment have led to frustration among the youth. The political patronage given to drugs during the elections is shameful. At a time when drug abuse should have been a raging social issue, leaders of the state, particularly the leaders from the ruling parties, use it to swing votes. Official corruption has worsened the problem — anecdotal evidence strongly indicates that Indian police and lawmakers are deeply complicit in both drug smuggling and distribution, netting millions of dollars in ill-gotten proceeds.

As regards the patterns of substance use in the State of Punjab, people belonging to the lower middle class are usually addicted to opium, charas and ganja. In the case of institution areas, say colleges, the chemical substances in demand by students in the state are smack and psychotropic drugs besides cough syrups. Girls are no exception. Bhukki becomes the most-sought-after “contraband” when elections, be these to the gram panchayat, the block samiti, the zila parishad, the Vidhan Sabha or the Lok Sabha, are to be held. The middle class and the affluent are the worst victims of this drug crisis. “Bhukki” has been called the poor man’s addiction. Its main source of supply in Punjab is Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, where the cultivation of poppy is licensed. Addicts take either “chura” (ground husk) with water or boil “bhukki” in water and drink the “karah” (concentrate). It is easily available for the rate of app. Rs. 1000 per kg illegally as the Malwa area is corresponding to Rajasthan. The crude opium (bhukki) is brought from Rajasthan to Punjab by illegal means. Realizing that Punjab has a flourishing market; many Rajasthani vendors have opened their shops close to the Punjab border. Other drugs were Tab. Kamini which contains Akarkara, sonth, clove, saffron, pipal, nutmeg javitri, chandan, hingul, sulphur and opium as ingredients. It is marketed as Alterative, Tonic and Aphrodisiac agent for impotence; Tab. Tramadol; Cough syrups containing codeine; Cap. Spasmoproxyvon, Dicyclomine 10 mg, and Paracetamol 400mg). These medicines are easily available at chemist shops without prescription at some extra price. Other substances of abuse were found to be alcohol, tobacco and benzodiazepines especially Tab. Alprazolam. From the above, one thing is clear that there is trend towards abuse of medicinal drugs.

Child drug addiction has also soared in Punjab as peddlers target pre-teens some of whom are born into dependency. Many children have also been found inhaling ink correction fluids and tyre repair solutions. Children who begin with such gateway substances gradually get hooked to hardcore drugs.

An understanding of the pattern of substance use in the State of Punjab and an analysis of the sources of availability of various types of drugs in the State gives a clear picture that both external and internal factors are responsible for this devastating problem in the State. It also means that the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act 1985 is not being successfully implemented in Punjab to control drug abuse. Other important issue of concern is abuse of over the counter drugs, which is a serious issue needing urgent attention of government, medical fraternity and policy makers. Strong policies should be made and more importantly implemented. More over there should be wide spread use of information, education and communication in rural areas so as to contradict the myths about drug use. Drastic actions are needed besides corrective steps to ensure that the innocence of minors in Punjab is not stolen by drugs.

Drugs Abuse and its impact on Women
There are few studies on women and drug abuse. Most concentrate on men, and so the male experience has been passed off as the ‘general’ one. Our contention is that the problem needs to be understood in a gender sensitive manner. Drug abuse takes a heavy toll of its users. The issue of substance abuse and its consequences on family is of important concern in contemporary society. As the number of drug addicts is fast rising in the country, it is important for their families and general practitioners to understand the physical, social and psychological problems caused by regular drug abuse. Recently there have been some changes, however, in understanding of the problem. Women’s groups have been witnessing increasing drug abuse among women and are demanding, and rightly so, more legislative measures, policies and programmes. The HIV epidemic, coupled with transmission of diseases like hepatitis and tuberculosis introduces new dimensions of risk. The significant co-occurrence of alcohol problems and domestic violence lead many experts and researchers to recommend that alcohol and drug use should be automatically assessed in all cases of domestic violence, and domestic violence should be assessed for in all cases of alcohol and drug problems. In practice, the chances of encountering both problems together are substantial.
Drugs abuse has its own huge social cost. Substance abuse inflicts heavy cost on family and nation. These include direct and indirect cost. A drug addict spends heavy amount of money for his addiction. Furthermore, it can interfere with an individual’s employment and productivity. Indirect losses also include losses due to premature death of abuser either due to natural course of disease, trauma or suicide. Substance abuse is associated with increased risk of other diseases like HIV, tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases. These co-morbidities lead to additional burden on family. Major family problems associated with drugs abuse are:
• Alcohol and drug use have genetic influences
• Domestic violence
• Child abuse
• Impaired family relationships
• Dysfunctional family responses
• Marital conflict – abuse, separation, divorce

The decadal rise in substance abuse in society has put tremendous pressure on contemporary families especially on wives of addicts. It generated conflicts in families with higher level of wives victimization and forced them to adopt various coping mechanisms. Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India in their report, published in 2002, found that drug abuse possess various kinds of problems impacting not just individual user but also on the family and community. The adverse effect of drug use on families is tremendous. It is the family to which the addict turns to or turns on either in emotional or physical distress or crisis. Due to addiction, drug user stops taking responsibilities thus relationship suffers and resentment among family members increases. The consequences of drug abuse is often more wretched for poor families. Often female members especially wives got most adversely affected by addiction of their husbands. Drug use is also often associated with domestic violence, risk of transmission of STD/HIV and aggravates physical and emotional distress among family members. The experience of violence undermines the empowerment women and certainly is a barrier to the socio-economic and demographic development of the country.

United Nations Office on Drug and Crime in their study also reported that wives of substance abusers were found to be under various types of burdens. The study revealed that wives felt high burden due to their role of ‘care-takers’ for their addict husbands. On the continuum scale from zero to 100 where zero represented no burden felt and 100, the maximum possible burden majority of wives reported a score of 75 and above. None reported a score of zero. In the context of social support, the study further revealed that there is lack of social support for wives of substance abuser. With more people living in nuclear families and relatives shying away, especially when there were monetary expectations, lack of support from the family of origin together with the blame for addition, all add up to an overwhelming burden on these women.
Unemployment or diversion of money for drugs created a huge economic burden, especially in the families with low incomes. Some of the women were themselves working, and faced tremendous hardship, working both within and outside the house. In addition to huge economical losses associated with substance abuse, there are many psychological problems faced by family members and the greatest sufferer is the woman in the family as a mother and/or as a wife of the substance abuser and the burden faced by the women is the burden of blame-blame of being responsible for the substance use, blame of hiding the issue from others and blame of not getting timely treatment. Thus the woman often becomes the victim of not just the substance abuser, but also society. This often led to feelings of guilt, depression, anxiety, isolation, frequent suicidal thoughts, insomnia, physical violence and verbal aggression. Disturbances in the sexual area are apparent, but the awareness and protection against sexually transmitted diseases appear to be low.

Women in Indian village are already at disadvantageous status and substance abuse in their husbands has further deteriorated their condition. Due to high magnitude of addiction in husbands the plight of women has turned to be highly pathetic. The status of feminine gender was found to be low. The role associated with the female gender make them vulnerable to exploitation and stress.
In Punjab, many young people have been trapped by drugs with severe consequences for the family. Several research have established that social problems relating to drugs and alcoholism, crime and criminals and health related problems are strongly perceived problems by educated adults of different age groups of Punjab. Abuse of drugs and alcohol by Punjabis compounds the violence against women. The use of substances such as cocaine, heroin and alcohol has been shown in multiple studies to increase violent behavior. In Punjab this violence is often directed at women. Not long ago, The Tribune reported the tale of 22 year-old Poonam, who was shot in the chest by her father for speaking out against his drinking. Poonam’s story is not an isolated case. Abused women often cannot escape their homes as they have nowhere to go – domestic violence shelters are uncommon, most young women have little to no education, and Indian cultural norms expect that a married daughter will not return to the home of her biological parents. As stated above, Maqboolpura, near Amritsar has been declared as a “place of the widows”. One can imagine the plight of women in that area. Who are the ultimate sufferers of the problem in Maqboolpura? It is the surviving women without their counterparts, without any earning scope and without a respect for their life. Even at the highest levels, the inferiority of women remains deeply embedded within society. Dowries have become such a ubiquitous part of Indian culture that an entire paradigm shift is necessary to reverse the convention. As a long-term solution, we must begin to recognize the value of women. Due to scant support for them they adopt various coping strategies to counter problems associated with addiction of their spouses. These strategies used by wives of addicts in rural areas were very crude. There is no provision for counseling of wives of addicts about how to tackle with the problem of addiction in their spouses. There is an immediate need of collaboration between social systems, health system and community as a whole to formulate some mechanism to reduce burden on wives of addicts.
What is the way out?

When Shri Rahul Gandhi, quoting from a survey, had said in 2012 that 70 per cent of Punjab’s youth are addicted to drugs, the ruling combine reacted with fury. Today its candidates across the State are facing uncomfortable questions over the perceived involvement of the political machinery in the distribution of drugs. The fact is that drug use is certainly rising, especially in the case of heroin and narcotic injectables. This is due to the easy availability of these drugs. There is an absence of proper policing and implementation measures, what is required is vigorous anti-drug strategies must be deployed by government and other stake holders.
Politics is a part of the drugs problem in Punjab. Police investigations have uncovered links between political leaders, businessmen and drug smugglers. In the 2012 Assembly elections, the Akali Dal-BJP alliance had promised to eradicate the drug problem. Barely two years later, a drug lord who was arrested named Cabinet minister Bikram Singh Majithia, the brother-in-law of Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Badal, as the kingpin of the flourishing drug racket. That the Punjab police has not probed the sensational allegations has only strengthened public perception that ruling politicians are involved. From the manner in which politicians were scurrying for cover from the growing anger of the people in the last general elections over the drug problem, it is clear that the traditionally aggressive Punjabi, who is not known to take things lying down, seems to have had enough. What is worrying sane elements though is whether this anger will be manifested only at the hustings or whether it could be worse. During the terrorism period, a study was conducted which found that 80 per cent of the boys who had become terrorists were unemployable and found a sense of self-worth in the gun, the same hopelessness is seen among Punjab’s youth today.

The government must recognise the need to intervene in this area and back it with political will. There is a need for lobbying, pressure groups and advocacy forums, which can place drug abuse higher on the agenda. Sensitisation of key individuals in the policy-making process is of great importance. As yet, there is little evidence of any organised effort in this direction. Government must have to focus on the socio-economic variables and their impacts on increase number of drug crime, opium cultivation etc. Drug abuse is an obstacle to human development program. Drug awareness programmes, job opportunities, educating the people regarding the effects of narcotic drugs may create the prosperous future of the nations

Studies have reported that the age of 16-21 years is most crucial in developing the habit of consuming drugs and the frequency of drug abuse increases with age. The curriculum should be so equipped that young generation can be sensitized about ill effects of drugs, alcohol and other narcotic substances. Government and other agencies responsible for maintaining law and order should ensure safety of common man and do the needful to curb the graph of crime. Steps should be taken by the government to provide best health care services to the citizens at affordable cost. Awareness of every sphere should be within the reach of each and every person. Children should be made aware about their rights and strategies to escape themselves from being victimized. Education system should be such that it can meet the challenges of fast developing world. People should be made aware about their responsibilities towards their family so that congenial environment within the family should be created.
The social disadvantage and sub-ordination of women on the one hand, and the rapid socio-cultural and economic changes on the other have significantly altered traditional structures and institutions within society. Such changes are invariably associated with social upheaval, and drug abuse is a known outcome of such change. Clearly, drug abuse impacts women dually- male drug abuse creates enormous burden for the affected women, and drug abuse per se has even graver problems for women.

* The Author is an Advocate and National Spokesperson of the Indian National Congress