Sukhwant Kumar wanted to run away. The pale walls of the Swami Vivekanand Drug De-Addiction and Treatment Center in Amritsar, a city in the northern Indian state of Punjab, were closing in. He felt scrutinized and threatened by people wearing lab coats. The ceiling fan seemed as though it could crash on him at any moment.
The 30-year-old, who had worked odd jobs at a restaurant and a car rental, once hoped to start his own taxi service. That was three years ago, before his wife and children had left him — before he became addicted to heroin.
"I am possessed by heroin. It is a ghost within me," Kumar told VICE News. "Sometimes I cannot recognize myself."
Like the time he found himself at a traffic circle running in front of speeding cars, believing that he was inhabiting a movie scene, or the time that he was so desperate for another dose of heroin that he lit himself on fire before alarmed neighbors rushed in and smothered the flames.
Kumar was now being administered buprenorphine, an opioid substitution drug, at one of 10 new rehabilitation clinics that the state government had recently established. Its 50 beds were at full capacity, and outpatient services were treating as many as 30 to 40 new patients and up to 400 follow-up patients a day, according to Dr. P. D. Garg, head of the psychiatry department.
Sukhwant Kumar at the Swami Vivekanand Drug De-Addiction and Treatment Center. (Photo by Mansi Choksi/VICE News)
He was due to stay at the clinic for only five days, while his outpatient treatment could last up to three months. Meanwhile, addicts elsewhere were being thrown into jail by the dozens.
In Punjab, an entire generation seems to be in the grip of debilitating addiction brought on by a proliferating drug-trade across the India-Pakistan border. Some 344 miles of the border runs along the state, where the scale of substance abuse is nearly impossible to quantify in the absence of comprehensive surveys. Independent studies have found that drug addiction has multiplied manifold and is a problem for as much as 75 percent of Punjab youth. The state accounts for one-fifth of the total recoveries of heroin in India, and estimates suggest that more than 16 percent of the total population is hooked on hard drugs.
As of September, Punjab police had this year already seized 438 kilos of heroin, 8,553 kilos of poppy husks, and arrested 12,695 people accused of selling drugs.
India's geographical proximity to the "Golden Crescent" — Asia's main center of illicit opium production in Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan — has always made it vulnerable to the effects of drug trafficking. This has been particularly true since the 1980s, when drugs were increasingly redirected through India after the traditional Balkan route was compromised during the Iran-Iraq war.
According to Drug Trafficking in India: A Case for Border Security, a paper by the Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses, a New Delhi think tank, a network of bullion smugglers was already working across the India-Pakistan border around that time. During a militant campaign for an independent Sikh state in the mid-1980s, cross-border drug trafficking began swelling to finance the insurgency. While the insurrection has since died down, the narcotics trade has recently taken on a life of its own.
Drug addiction in Punjab has exploded in recent years, reflecting both the region's faltering economy — which has suffered in recent years owing to stagnant agricultural production, deteriorating soil health, and high rates of farmer debt — and the effects of "spillover" since the American invasion of Afghanistan, where ineffective efforts to curb a booming opiate trade has forced more product to be moved through Pakistan and India.
"The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s manifested itself in thousands of heroin addicts in Karachi alone," Neelam Deo, director of Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations, a foreign policy think tank based in Mumbai, told VICE News. "Something similar is happening in and around Amritsar."
In Rorawala Khurd, a village within sight of a barbed border fence, an Indian border security guard squinting through binoculars pointed toward an expanse of golden-haired fields. He had been ordered, he said, to keep his eyes peeled for smugglers. Anyone could be moving drugs — a Pakistani infiltrator, a farmer, even a child.
'The politicians want to show people they are doing something without disturbing the drug economy.'
The Punjab government, led by an alliance between the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its regional ally Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), launched a program in May called Operation Clean "to evolve such a mechanism that disallows entry of even 10 grams of narcotics in the state." The program was announced only three days after the parliamentary election results were declared, marking the disappointment of the BJP-SAD government in the state despite a wave of voting that saw high returns for the BJP across the country. The BJP-SAD coalition suffered a humbling result here in large part because of its failure to rein in the drug racket.
As of September, Punjab police had this year already seized 438 kilos of heroin, 8,553 kilos of poppy husks, and arrested 12,695 people accused of selling drugs, according to an affidavit submitted to the Punjab and Haryana court. In contrast, the authorities had seized only 9.8 kilos of heroin in all of 2003.
Jagdeep Singh Samra, a prominent criminal lawyer in Amritsar, regards the state's cleanup strategy as more an exercise in public relations than an effort to save Punjab. Earlier this year, a former wrestler-turned-disgraced police superintendent named Jagdish Singh Bhola accused Punjab Revenue Minister Bikram Singh Majithia of being involved in the drug trade. He had earlier threatened to name three local cabinet ministers who were complicit in narcotics. But Samra told VICE News that the authorities have targeted only small-time peddlers and addicts.
The crackdown on users, with dozens rounded up by police each day, reflects an apparent focus on demand rather than supply. Kumar, the recovering heroin addict, described how he had hurriedly checked himself into the rehabilitation center because police officers were combing his slum for drug abusers like him.
Though the Punjab government was reportedly considering in August whether to provide immunity from jail terms to drug addicts if they volunteered for rehabilitation treatment — as stipulated by provisions under India's Narcotic Drug and Psychotropic Substances Act — a formal decision has not been made. A former narcotics squad official in Punjab who spoke on condition of anonymity told VICE News that drug addicts continue to languish in jail.
Hospitalized addicts at the Swami Vivekanand Drug De-Addiction and Treatment Center. (Photo by Mansi Choski/VICE News)
Whether concerning drug seizures, imprisoned offenders, or addicts in treatment centers, the state's focus was unwaveringly on numbers.
"The politicians want to show people they are doing something without disturbing the drug economy," the former narcotics official said, noting that there was so much pressure to make arrests in Punjab that the police had no choice but to go after addicts. "The police cannot clean up everything alone."
Drug addiction is so deeply entrenched, he added, that four of his own colleagues had to be checked into rehabilitation centers when the state cleanup drive began.
In Rajoke, a village on the India-Pakistan border, a farmer named Virender Singh stood at the border fence — a spiraling, barbed structure erected within India in order to seal the border. It electrifies after sunset to deter infiltrators.
"If you touch this, you go straight to hell," said Singh, who owns rice fields across the fence. "At night, it is here that the smuggling happens."
Packets of drugs and other contraband like counterfeit currency are flung into India from across the fence and retrieved from predetermined spots, or are sometimes tied in bundles and inserted through the fence within rubber tubes, with a line dangling on the other side for someone to pull the drugs through.
Being dragged into the trade starts with someone offering free doses of heroin or dried poppy husks, which can be ground into a powder and ingested as a tea, until the consumer becomes dependent. If he can't pay to maintain the habit, the user must either get someone else to try the drug or pick up a consignment along the border and deliver it to someone else. According to police, couriers from the city of Amritsar across the border from Lahore relay the goods to New Delhi and Mumbai, from which they are distributed to Western markets.
"The person picking up the packets doesn't know who he's talking to or where it is going," Singh said. "They do it because they are desperate for the next dose. We can see them suffering, shaking with anxiety." Farmers like Singh work under a watchful eye, obeying a curfew after sunset and a prohibition from growing crops taller than three feet.
"We live in constant fear that a smuggler will drop his packets on our land and we will have to answer for it," he added.
Drug abuse in the border belt is reportedly much higher than in the cities. An estimated 4 in 5 men between the ages of 13 and 60 abuse narcotics in Rajoke, most of them hooked on an impure form of heroin. Dope has penetrated the public to such an extent, Singh said, that when a politician campaigning for votes in the area was asked what he planned to do to curb drug abuse, he bluntly said that he could do nothing because 80 percent of his voters were addicted to drugs.
Dr. Jaswinder Singh, an anesthesiologist who has been working in de-addition treatment for 12 years, told VICE News that substance addiction is clearly eating away at the future of Punjab. Though he was initially dubious of the effectiveness of attempting to treat so many addicts who were not ready to be helped, Dr. Singh has come to see hospitalization as a vital means of educating addicts on the dangers they face.
"You never know when the addict may die. At the center, even if he is kept under force and given counseling, he will realize what the drugs are doing to his body," he said. "The missing focus, however, is on the dangers of relapsing. What happens when the addict goes back to the same society, the same friends who got him addicted to start with?"
Gurinder Singh, an 18-year-old addict, was sitting in the visitor's room at the rehabilitation center in Amritsar, waiting to be assigned a bed. It was his second admission for treatment in the past six months. He had completed a two-week rehabilitation course in June at a private clinic near Jaito, a village within sight of the barbed fence at the India-Pakistan border. But in September, he injected what he thought would be one last dose of heroin with friends. It wasn't.
"When I saw my mother beat her chest, crying as if I had died, I decided to come here," he said as he flipped through a pamphlet that was titled Love Life, Not Drugs. "I will get better, and then I will get a job."
Follow Mansi Choksi on Twitter: @mansi_choksi