Illustration: Shyamal Banerjee/Mint
Illustration: Shyamal Banerjee/Mint

Censorship won’t solve Punjab’s drug problem

The drug trade's political links make it particularly difficult to destroy

The Udta Punjab debacle is an object lesson in responsibility avoidance. The free speech versus censorship issue aside—this paper has advocated doing away with the Central Board of Film Certification’s censorship role as per the Shyam Benegal committee’s recommendations—the politicization of the issue has been absurd even for a poll-bound state. Punjab’s drug problem is a very real one. The incumbent parties criticizing the film’s attempt to address it as defamation will not wish the issue away.

According to Punjab’s social security department’s 2004 report, 67% of the households in the state had at least one drug addict at the time. Matters have worsened since then.

Opium use has been part of Punjab’s cultural landscape since before Partition and ramped up after the Green Revolution. But the rot truly set in with the spread of synthetic drugs via cross-border flows in the 1980s, and then the narco-terrorism spike around the turn of the millennium. Heroin (chitta) is mostly home-grown, while corruption and laxity in border security architecture provide ingress points for narcotics from Pakistan.

Unfortunately, the trade’s political links make it a particularly difficult system to destroy. Out of the 185,000kg of drugs seized by the Election Commission in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, 75% belonged to the state of Punjab. And when the state government has attempted to address the issue—it has cracked down in the aftermath of the 2014 embarrassment and in the face of growing public discontent—it has done so with a bludgeon.

The problem is a complicated one involving multiple factors from the cultural to the economic; rural unemployment has been particularly harmful. The government’s punitive approach can only do so much in the face of this.

A core problem—not just in Punjab but nationally—is this governmental approach that emphasizes criminality rather than a holistic approach integrating demand reduction, harm reduction and supply reduction. Harm reduction—providing clean needles, sterilization equipment and the like to drug users—has proved to be effective in Manipur as well as in other countries in minimizing secondary damage such as the spread of AIDS and Hepatitis C. But despite the ministry of health and welfare supporting this approach as far back as 2002, it continues to be viewed negatively as 2012’s National Policy on Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances showed.

The demand reduction strategy, meanwhile, involves perception management of the youth and parents, effective affordable rehabilitation centres, focus on high-prevalence drug groups such as sex workers, transportation workers and street children, and simultaneous development of the state and redressal of the unemployment situation. But according to a briefing paper by the International Drug Policy Consortium, only 122 hospitals across the country offer drug treatment.

This is highly inadequate considering the fact that alternative unregulated private facilities deploy unapproved methods that end up harming the patient.

The supply side reduction should involve a zero-tolerance policy towards drug cartels, syndicates and peddlers. Preventing diversion of licit cultivation of opium and opiate pharmaceutical drugs, checking illicit cultivation of opium and closing porous borders should be non-negotiable clauses in India’s drug abuse prevention policy.

The lack of nuance and disproportionate penalties written into the legislation governing drug offences—the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985—doesn’t help, of course. As pointed out in an Indian Express report, hunting down addicts or small-time peddlers and leaving the big fish free will not suffice.

While tightening the noose around drug cartels, it is essential that drug users are diverted from prisons to rehabilitation centres where they have a genuine chance at recovery.

If there is one thing Udta Punjab’s critics have got right, it’s that the drug problem isn’t restricted to the state. Wedged between the Golden Triangle (Thailand, Laos and Vietnam) in the east and the Golden Crescent (Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan) in the west, many regions in India, such as the north-east, are particularly vulnerable.

What the Punjab epidemic has shown is that matters can get much worse if they aren’t handled effectively. Going after Bollywood films doesn’t count.

Has the political nexus in India enabled drug trafficking? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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