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In Sikkim, football is weaning drug users away from the dark

Unicorn FC is a football club in Sikkim comprising 22 players, 17 of whom are former drug users. Photo: Unicorn FC
Unicorn FC is a football club in Sikkim comprising 22 players, 17 of whom are former drug users. Photo: Unicorn FC

Pema Gyatso Bhutia was 12 years old when a friend introduced him to Spasmo Proxyvon (SP), a painkiller that was banned in India in 2013 for containing the opioid dextropropoxyphene, but continues to be sold widely by peddlers. The addictive pharmaceutical drug gave him an instant high and soon, he was saving up to buy multiple strips of the pill every day, which he first consumed orally and then began to inject. 

“I had heard so much about drugs in my locality that I was tempted to try. More than half the boys in my class used drugs. It was done openly, and I thought people who used drugs were cool” he said. “But I never realized that I would get addicted. It changed everything.” 

Bhutia, now 30, recalled a period when his family ill-treated and distrusted him, his sister was embarrassed to acknowledge him on the streets, and friends who did not use drugs stopped including him in their plans.

“For six-and-a-half years, I did not realize that it was ruining my life, but there came a point when I was financially, physically and spiritually in a crisis,” said Bhutia, visibly distraught at the memory. A lack of awareness and the stigma associated with drug usage led his family to oppose the idea of rehabilitation. “They thought only the worst people go to rehab. I had to turn to my aunt for help because I decided I couldn’t be dependent on drugs anymore.” 

Bhutia checked into rehab in 2006. After treatment, he spent most of his time with friends from Narcotics Anonymous—a non-profit fellowship or society of former drug users who meet regularly to help each other stay clean—who suggested that they form a football team and participate in an upcoming local tournament. 

“I had never played football before but the other guys taught me. It was probably the first time I experienced pure happiness,” Bhutia, a lean man with an angular face, recalled with a smile. 

Bhutia is now the goalkeeper of Unicorn FC, a football club comprising 22 players, 17 of whom are former drug users. In the day, Bhutia works as a supervisor in a government-run water treatment plant, but in the early mornings or evenings, he is in Palzor Stadium in Gangtok, practicing his skills with his teammates or playing a tournament. 

“If I don’t come to the stadium, my day feels incomplete,” he said. “I finally have my family’s trust, and people in and around Gangtok recognize me.” 

Drug abuse and high suicide rate in Sikkim

According to a report released by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the ministry of social justice and empowerment in 2004, the latest year for which data is available, it was estimated that India has 10.7 million drug users, of whom 8.7 million used cannabis and 2 million used opiates. A more recent UNODC study in 2011 noted that a large number of former and current drug users in India have now shifted from narcotics to pharmaceuticals. 

In Sikkim, the widespread abuse of pharmaceutical drugs has largely gone unreported. There is no official data or comprehensive research available, but social workers in Gangtok estimate that at least 7 in every 10 teenagers in Sikkim use pharmaceutical drugs. 

Kunal Kishore, a UNODC official, attributes this to a number of factors: high unemployment levels, speedy economic development at the cost of social factors, a history of alcohol abuse and cannabis usage, and the availability of cheap, illegal pharmaceutical drugs. 

The government’s response to the crisis—the Sikkim Anti Drugs Act, 2006, or SADA, under which drug users are imprisoned, fined and barred from government jobs—has further alienated and marginalized drug users. The act does not differentiate between peddlers and users. 

In its Facebook page, the Sikkim police, which launched a “special drive against drugs” since March 2016, regularly posts updates with pictures of those found with strips of pharmaceuticals and booked under SADA. 

According to a statement by the police, 147 cases were registered and 191 people involved in drug trading were arrested between March and October 2016. During this period, 52,053 capsules of SP, 7,497 tablets of Nitrosun 10 (N10)—a medicine used to treat insomnia, anxiety and epilepsy—and 2,212 bottles of cough syrup were confiscated. 

The state government’s department of health care, human services and family welfare, in a response to a Right to Information query, stated that it lacks funds for the treatment of addicts. It also admitted that it has no machinery to “tackle the people who use drugs”, adding that the police looked at such cases as a “law and order problem”. Only one of eight rehabilitation centres in Sikkim receives funds from the central government; others function privately.

Ravindra Telang, commissioner and secretary of the social justice empowerment and welfare department of Sikkim, acknowledged the lack of data on drug abuse and added that the government was looking to conduct a survey in the state with the help of the UNODC. According to Telang, drug abuse has long been a concern in Sikkim but it was difficult to comment on its gravity due to lack of state-wide data and research on the issue.

Telang said the state government provided small yearly grants to private NGOs and was also running a peer-education programme, which is funded by watch and jewellery firm Titan Ltd as part of its corporate social responsibility requirements, called Sikkim against addiction and towards healthy India, in 100 schools this year.

According to Uttam Pradhan, director of state health services, a rehabilitation centre is being constructed in south Sikkim which will have the capacity to house 10-12 indoor patients, will provide free services and be run by the state government. He added that the health department also has targeted intervention programmes for injecting drug users across the state, which is funded by the National Aids Control Organization. 

“It’s not like the government isn’t doing anything. More could be done, of course, but a number of things are in process,” he said. 

An IndiaSpend investigation, however, found that lack of sufficient help for drug users and government apathy had contributed to Sikkim’s high suicide rate. In 2015, Sikkim’s suicide rate was 37.5 per 100,000 people, second only to Puducherry (43.2) among all of India’s states and union territories. 

It is in such an environment that current and former drug users have been taking to football—the most popular sport in the state. 

Breaking stereotypes and reintegrating into society

Sikkim is home to several well-known players in the national football team, including former captain Baichung Bhutia. 

According to Phurba Sherpa, former general secretary of the Football Club Association of Sikkim, football has become a professional sport in the state. “People are finally making money in the field, and it’s a job for many of them,” he said. 

For most former drug users, however, football is much more than a career option. For Unicorn FC players, most of whom are in the age group of 20 to 35 and have day jobs, football is a way to gain acceptance and reintegrate into society. Having faced discrimination in the past, the players said they were no longer looked down upon like they once were. 

Unicorn FC is self-funded and its members play the role of administrators as well, but this hasn’t discouraged them the least bit. The only thing that worries 37-year-old Khituk Tangden Lepcha, a social worker who founded Unicorn FC in 2014, is the club being stereotyped. 

“The real world is outside the gates of rehab. That’s where the real challenge lies because the society is not accommodating. Chances of relapse are high when a user’s expectations from society are unmet and there is discrimination,” he said. “Most of these guys are extremely talented but lose touch with themselves due to drugs. Unicorn FC is a way to mainstream them into the society so they are accepted and don’t feel alone.” 

In keeping with Khituk’s goals for the club and to break stereotypes, its players have been practicing under some of the best coaches in the state, and regularly taking part in tournaments. Last year, Unicorn FC was the runner-up in the Serenity Cup 2016, a tournament where the 10 participating teams were formed by either rehabilitation centres or NGOs working with drug users in Sikkim, the district of Darjeeling in neighbouring West Bengal, and Bhutan. 

The club also competed with professional teams to win the C Division League organized by the Sikkim Football Association. The players now practice from 6am to 8.30am every morning for the B Division League, which is likely to begin mid-August and will include six matches among seven teams. 

“There was a time when people said ‘addicts can’t play, they are losers’, but winning was a matter of pride for us. The players proved themselves, and also motivated many drug users to believe that they too can get fitter and start afresh,” said Khituk. 

Rehabilitation centres in Sikkim follow the 12-step recovery programme of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous—global addiction recovery organizations that outline steps based on social support and spirituality—but founders and counsellors agree that football is unofficially an integral part of the treatment and recovery process. 

They have seen that when users play football during treatment, it boosts their self-esteem and helps them socialize, apart from conveying a message to society that these are not criminals, but sick people who require treatment and support. 

These were also some of the reasons that encouraged Udai Chandra Rai, founder of the Gangtok-based Serenity Homes rehabilitation centre, to start the Serenity Cup in 2015. Rai has found football to be an effective way to follow up with drug users after their discharge and in sustaining their recovery. He has seen teams practicing all year round for the tournament. 

“For drug users, who are stigmatized and isolated by society, being a part of a team for so long is in itself an achievement,” he said. 

Last year, the Serenity Cup was attended by Prem Das Rai, the lone Lok Sabha MP from Sikkim, and also had schoolchildren attending in large numbers, with two schools performing a drill and a play during the finals. “It was heartening to see the response of the society,” Rai said. 

A 24-year-old player who was in a rehabilitation centre at the time and participated in the tournament told me how happy he was to have scored a goal during a match while his mother watched in the audience. “I wanted to prove to my family and society that I could still fix myself… That everything was not ruined yet. It (playing in the tournament) made me believe that,” he said, requesting anonymity. 

This year, Rai is planning to crowdfund the expenses of the tournament, and invite teams from Nepal and states in the northeast to participate. 

These initiatives have undoubtedly had a tremendous impact on the lives of many. However, there is one group of people they have left out—female drug users. 

When I asked Rinzing Bhutia, a former drug user and project manager of the targeted intervention programme for injecting drug users in Gangtok, about it, she said it had never occurred to her that football could be used to help female drug users with their recovery too. 

“We focus on education and skill training for them. Financial stability is the priority because a lot of these women are above 40 years old, divorced, widowed or avoided by their family. How can we think about sports in such circumstances?” she said. 

Since female drug users face greater social discrimination and receive less support, most of them are also unwilling to openly present themselves as former drug users, Rinzing added. But she also admitted that sports could definitely help young girls, and she would consider using it as a recovery tool in the future. 

Football as a support system 

“I kept using drugs until 2012, but there was one time when I overdosed and injured myself so badly that I was hospitalized for 10 days. That really scared me. I thought I might die if I kept doing this,” said another Unicorn FC player, who requested anonymity. His parents sent him to rehab, following which he began playing football to keep himself occupied. “And look, my life changed.” 

Once a part of the under-14 and under-19 Sikkim cricket team, and having competed at the national level, his sporting career had come to an abrupt halt after he got addicted to drugs in late 2006. He now works as a medical attendant in a public health centre in east Sikkim. 

Both he and Bhutia say football brought back discipline into their lives, motivating them to get fitter and regain their lost health. Most importantly, it helped them form connections. 

“We have become like family. Since our pasts are almost similar, we don’t have the fear of judgement around each other,” said the former cricket player. 

Bhutia added, “The bond we share is the most important of all. If I am in need tomorrow, my team members will be the first ones I call.”

Aware of the therapeutic role football has had in the lives of many former drug users, Khituk has been trying to encourage participation in the sport across Sikkim. Last year, the team was invited to an under-14 coaching camp in Dzongu, north Sikkim, to support and motivate the children. Unicorn FC also plays friendly matches with other clubs as part of drug awareness campaigns that are organized in and around Gangtok. 

“We have some players who were once alcoholic but never needed to go to rehab since being a part of the club helped them enough,” Khituk said. “Imagine if kids never even begin to abuse alcohol or drugs because they have joy and support through football. This is what I wish for the youth in Sikkim.”

Sarita Santoshini is an independent journalist based in Assam, reporting on human rights, development and gender issues.

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