India’s various scourges–including poverty, violence against women and girls, and corruption–have been well-chronicled. Its drug problems, mainly involving heroin and crystal meth, have received considerably less global coverage… Allegations have been made that local politicians and law enforcement are complicit in Punjab’s drug trade, and by at least one account political workers have bribed voters with drugs… Punjab’s plight could undercut Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s efforts to spark a national economic recovery…
In the northern Indian State of Punjab, more than half of people ages 18 to 35 are using drugs, and at least one person is addicted in two-thirds of rural households. By one estimate, 75 per cent of children are drug addicts. The topic dominated conversations I had with locals – from college students to politicians–when I was in Punjab recently. It’s not just the number of addicts that’s so troubling but also the lack of treatment facilities: Barely 70 counseling and rehab centers are available to serve a State population of nearly 30 million. Allegations have been made that local politicians and law enforcement are complicit in Punjab’s drug trade, and by at least one account political workers have bribed voters with drugs.
The roots of the epidemic are clear: Punjab’s sputtering economy and hopelessness bred by rising unemployment in a once-prosperous state help generate high demand. And drugs are constantly available from nearby Pakistan and Afghanistan. Opium cultivation in Afghanistan recently hit a record high, while the flow of narcotics from Pakistan into India has surged at times in recent weeks. It’s tougher to figure out the demand side. Why should Punjab be struggling economically, given its reputation as India’s breadbasket and as a top agricultural region?
Heavy urbanisation is taking a toll on Punjab’s agricultural economy. This was easy to see while driving across the State in recent days. Rows and rows of new retail shops have been built on top of farms, while cows snuggled up tightly against long lines of gleaming motorcycles parked on freshly paved roads. The good news is that Punjab’s State Government – run by an alliance of the Shiromani Akali Dal, or SAD, and the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, which runs India’s Central Government – is starting to respond. In recent months it has arrested more than 3,500 users and two dozen police officers with alleged links to traffickers.
Still, Punjab’s drug epidemic remains acute. And the victims are starting to extend beyond the poor and unemployed. In recent days Indian media outlets have reported that cocaine – pricier than heroin – is becoming a drug of choice for the state’s wealthier residents. Punjab’s plight could undercut Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s efforts to spark a national economic recovery. It’s hard to right India’s economic ship when 75 per cent of the youths in one of its most economically significant States are addicted to drugs.
Punjab’s drug problem also adds to Indian anxieties about the international troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban are likely to exploit security vacuums that enable them to intensify the cross-border drug trade. Pakistan is meanwhile fighting its own drug epidemic. A subcontinent already plagued by poverty and instability doesn’t need its drug issues to grow worse.
(Michael Kugelman is senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is on Twitter: @michaelkugelman.)