With men falling prey to drugs, women and children bear the brunt of living in a toxic atmosphere of crime and violence fuelled by addiction.
She is barely 20: thin, pale, her eyes glazed and vacant with the habit accumulated through her short life, of suffering without hope or end. Her father succumbed to drugs when she was a small child. Her mother was forced to marry her husband’s younger brother. He too fell to drugs, and died a few years later. Her brother, just years older to her, emulated his father before he even became a teenager. Her mother married her off at 17, hoping she would build some kind of life for herself in her new home. But the girl soon discovered that her husband also used hard drugs.
Like several hundred wives, daughters, mothers and sisters in the working class settlement Maqboolpura in Amritsar, her life-sentence is of hard labour. She cleans dishes in people’s homes, desperately trying to keep her family alive.
When in 1999, Tribune reporter Varinder Walia found that 30 women were widowed in this neighbourhood in three years, he named it ‘widows’ colony’. The name has stuck, and local social workers today have recorded 330 widows, all martyrs to the assault of intoxicants and drugs that have penetrated the soul of proud Punjab. The government pays some of them a monthly pension of as little as Rs. 250.
In an affidavit to the High Court, the Punjab government itself admitted that in two-thirds of rural Punjabi households, at least one male is addicted to drugs. The administration is reluctantly awakening to this deadly social epidemic. An estimated 5000 men undergo treatment in 51 centres across the state, too small for the scale of the crisis. But a much larger number fall prey to illegal centres with untrained staff, where they are chained and beaten.
Elders across Punjab today mourn the loss of an entire generation. Punjab is reportedly the transit route for international drugs to Indian cities, and overseas. But it quickly became also a destination, as young people in Punjab learnt both to use and traffic drugs. A recent UN report estimates that Punjab has the second highest numbers of drug addicts in the country. They abuse charas, country liquor, smack, heroin, painkillers, amphetamines, opium and even lizards’ tails. Those who fall prey to drugs are mostly men in their prime, stricken when they should be working and raising families. Instead they are recklessly sharing injections, swallowing sometimes a 100 pills a day, peddling their blood, stealing, falling into debt, forcing their wives and mothers to part with money earned to fill their children’s stomachs, selling even their homes. Children grow hungry and frightened, watching violent and irresponsible fathers wasting away. But sadly boys also learn to imitate their fathers. Sociologist Amanpreet Singh found that a third of the addicts said they learnt drugs by imitating their fathers, and nearly a fifth their siblings.
The daily tragedy of this lost generation plays out in almost every home in Maqboolpura in Amritsar, not far from the Golden Temple. Its erstwhile predominantly Muslim population emptied out during Partition, and was replaced by poor working class Sikhs and Hindu refugees from across the border. Women mainly work as domestic help; men when they can mostly pull rickshaws or drive auto-rickshaws. But, as they slip into the world of drugs, manual work becomes impossible; women and children often survive by brewing and selling illicit country liquor and then graduate to even more deadly drugs. It is not uncommon to see small children adeptly negotiating with drunken customers. Many drop out early from school to help their mothers bring home money to feed the family.
The predicament of these small children moved a local teacher Ajit Singh, popularly known as Masterji, to create a safe haven for them to study and stay ‘clean’ of drugs in the years that they grew. His wake-up call was when, a decade back, his young son — then around 10 — asked his father for money to buy a ‘gillasi’, a glass of country liquor sold openly in every street corner of Maqboolpura.
Masterji desperately wanted to protect his son. But he thought of all children in his son’s age being raised in Maqboolpura. His wife Amandeep and he, both government schoolteachers of modest means, agonised for a while. They then decided to move all their belongings into a single room of their small house, and convert all the other rooms into classrooms. They taught the children after school hours, when they returned from their government day jobs.
More than the academic engagement, children found welcome escape for many hours into an environment free from drugs and violence. As the years passed, donations and awards came in and the teacher couple was able to build more classrooms. Today they teach and take care of more than 400 children and have the money to employ teachers as well, all young survivors from drug-abusing families. They are proud that most children who sit in their benches never fall to drugs.
They organised many of their student volunteers into an anti-drug abuse squad, which travels during vacations across the state, warning young people about the dangers of drugs, how it traps not just the drug user but his entire family into cycles of suffering, violence, unemployment and crime.
I met some of these young people. They spoke of growing crime in their neighbourhood, of desperate drug-users on motor-cycles who snatch their bags to buy drugs, of corrupt complicit policemen, of alcoholic fathers, brothers and uncles, of unsafe violent homes, of fearful deprived childhoods.
But they also spoke of their dreams — to join the police to battle against drugs, to become IAS officers, doctors and teachers. In other homes, parents raise and protect their children. Here, children were drawing up plans to protect their elders. Punjab has lost one generation to militancy, and the next to drugs. Maybe a third will cure it of this sickness that has entered deep into its soul.