In constituency after constituency, angry people are asking candidates how they plan to tackle the drug problem that threatens an entire generation

There is an air of expectancy in Hareri village in Sangrur Lok Sabha constituency. Kala, an opium addict, explains why. “Every election, a truckload of liquor and opium — as much as we want — is usually distributed. It will certainly happen this time too.”

At Mandali Chandbaja in Faridkot district, Hartinder Singh and a group of villagers are waiting to sell their newly harvested wheat at the roadside mandi. “There is demand from our area to legalise sale of opium so that young people who are addicted to more dangerous drugs like heroin and smack can use the less harmful and cheaper opiate,” he says.

A few kilometres away in Deepsinghwala village, people waved black flags at the Shiromani Akali Dal MP, Paramjit Kaur Gulshan, when she went to seek votes. “About 40 per cent of the village youth are hooked to drugs. The ruling politicians are hand in glove with the drug mafia,” says Nachattar Singh, a farmer. Ms Gulshan created a stir by declaring that if elected, she would push for establishing legal opium vends in her area.

The problem of the youth

Even a casual observer of the election scene in Punjab will not fail to notice that drugs, have emerged as the dominant narrative in the ongoing election campaign. The Narendra Modi wave, visible in other parts of the country, is barely discernible here. In constituency after constituency, candidates of the ruling Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party combine as well as the Congress are faced with questions from angry people about what measures will be taken to arrest the problem that threatens the State’s youth.

When Rahul Gandhi, quoting from a survey, 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. Bhagwant Mann, popular Punjabi satirist and Aam Admi Party (AAP) candidate from Sangrur, has based his entire election campaign on drugs. A band of AAP youth organise street plays that show drugs being transported in the ruling party leaders’ official vehicles. Indeed, one reason for the unexpected surge in support of the AAP in Punjab in this election is being attributed to the widespread perception that leaders of the Akali Dal, the BJP and the Congress all have a hand in the drug racket. “Though the ruling alliance is facing more anger and the code word for smack in particular is the name of an Akali leader, the Congress also has its share of drug lords,” says Darshan Singh in Chandbaja.

In the 2012 Assembly elections, the Akali Dal-BJP alliance 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. In October last year, retired Punjab police officer-turned-crusader against drugs, Shashi Kant Sharma, had on the directions of the Punjab and Haryana High Court informed the Election Commission (EC) that there is widespread use of drug money in elections. As against the 322 kilograms of heroin recovered from the Punjab border last year, more than 250 kilograms have been seized in the first four months of this year, prompting the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and the EC to take note of the problem. A few days back, the MHA initiated an internal probe to find out if funds generated from drug smuggling are being used to fund elections in the State.

Amid the electoral din where Punjab politicians are trading charges over drug smuggling, few are talking about why the problem exists in Punjab and not in neighbouring Rajasthan or Jammu and Kashmir. The problem is not just of smuggled heroin from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Synthetic drugs are manufactured in Punjab and its neighbouring States and are sold in thousands of chemist shops in rural areas.

Mr Sharma believes that as terrorism ebbed in the early nineties in Punjab, the narco-terrorism network made inroads into sections of the politico-bureaucratic set-up, which is used to lavish lifestyles — a by-product of insurgency. “The new narco-political elite uses drug money to fund elections now,” he says. Hareri villagers told The Hindu that the strategy used for the sale of drugs is very similar to multi-level marketing. An addict who gets more people to join the network is rewarded with free daily fixes.

Economic and social decline

For some years now, sociologists have been raising alarms about the sharp economic and social decline of Punjab. The diminishing returns from the Green Revolution have coincided with the poor quality of educational infrastructure and unemployment. Says Professor Harish Puri, academic and Punjab watcher: “In village after village, you will find young boys doing nothing. Their education is so poor that it cannot get them jobs. The youth are assailed by a growing sense that they are good for nothing.”

Over the counter, amphetamines that are easily available in village chemist shops, protected in many places by the village sarpanches, offer an easy high. A rise in real estate prices has put more money in the hands of young boys and girls from landed families who spend on drugs, fancy cars and a hedonistic lifestyle. Consequently, rural suicides, a galloping divorce rate and increasing crime rates are the totem poles of life in modern-day Punjab.

From the manner in which politicians are scurrying for cover from the growing anger of the people in this election 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], we did a study 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,” Dr Puri points out. “I can see the same hopelessness among Punjab’s youth today.”

More In: Comment | Opinion