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The Sobering Reasons Behind Punjab's Descent Into Drugs

27/06/2016 8:27 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
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SHAMMI MEHRA via Getty Images
Indian youth inhale drugs on the outskirts of Jalandhar in the north western Punjab province on June 15, 2016. / AFP / SHAMMI MEHRA (Photo credit should read SHAMMI MEHRA/AFP/Getty Images)

The "drug problem" in Punjab is in the news again for all the wrong reasons. While the censorship row over Udta Punjab and the impending state assembly elections may merit a separate discussion, it is important to address the problem of drug abuse in the state in a focused way. A remark made by Rahul Gandhi in 2012 -- that 7 out of 10 youth in Punjab have a drug problem -- first thrust the national spotlight on the state's struggles. The problem, of course, goes much further back for Punjab, which has long been a transit point for trafficking, especially of heroin from Iran and Afghanistan. What's more recent is the matter of drug abuse.

The border districts where the drug menace is severe have particularly registered a high count of unemployment across categories -- educated, uneducated, skilled and unskilled.

Based on our fieldwork and series of interviews earlier this year, we have observed how Punjab moved away from being a mere trafficking route to a market for local consumption. We have considered three factors that were frequently encountered in interviews, namely, migrant economy, unemployment, and failure of agriculture as key elements of our analysis.

Overview of the economy

Several studies have pointed to a range of economic factors responsible for the transformation of Punjab into a regional drug market, driven by the increasing consumption of a diverse range of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances. Even though Punjab is ranked as a relatively prosperous state, with per capita income well above and poverty levels noticeably below the national average, unemployment and an agrarian crisis have been highlighted as being at the root of several socio-economic problems of the region. The increasing drug use and peddling among the population, particularly the youth, has been attributed to a lack of gainful employment opportunities, driving them towards the more profitable venture of drug dealing.

Indeed, the promise offered by the green revolution and its subsequent failure to deliver in Punjab has been well documented. While the initial output indicated an astronomical surge in production, the after-effects due to mono-cropping, excessive use of pesticides, unproductive industrialization led to a consistent decline of the agricultural sector. The present records indicate that the farming sector is plagued by several problems, ranging from falling productivity to vicious debt cycles. Opportunities for absorbing those shifting out of agricultural occupations have been lacking; the cost of diverting land to drug trafficking or illegal cultivation of drugs seems viable even with apparent risks.

Agriculture

The agriculture sector in Punjab has been showing signs of a serious slowdown over the past few years. The sectoral growth rate has remained below 2% between 2009 and 2013, with growth turning negative in 2009-10 and 2012-13. As the state has been the biggest beneficiary of the Green Revolution, expectations from the farming sector were extremely high. However, increased reliance on mechanization accompanied by an absence of new irrigation techniques, stagnating productivity, and increasing fragmentation of land followed the growth period.

It has been claimed that profits from smuggling and the drug trade are astronomically higher than farming in border districts.

In recent times, minor land holdings in the state are fast disappearing as a result of their inability to bear decreasing yield and fluctuations of the market. The state has also been experiencing a high rate of farm suicides. It has been claimed that profits from smuggling and the drug trade are astronomically higher than farming in border districts. This has eventually led owners of farms adjoining the border to taking up the risk of cross-border drug transportation. Several interviews with administrators and law enforcement agencies suggest that the economy and social fabric of the region is closely intertwined with the memory of the region being a transit point for drugs. Drug couriering is now becoming a primary occupation to sustain livelihood.

Failing Migrant Economy

The agrarian situation in the state is closely connected to an influx of migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. A significant number of people have made their way to work in the farms of rural Punjab, specifically in the border districts. A sizeable portion has also moved in as industrial labour in urban areas like Ludhiana. In the period after 1980, relatively high agricultural prosperity and increasing industrial opportunities drew the poor migrant labour from neighbouring regions to both rural and urban pockets of Punjab. The rising number of migrants, coupled with harsh life conditions and a failing economy, led to the UN Human Development Report of 2004 on the changing nature and deprivations of the migrant economy. In the absence of sustainable productivity and proportionate employment creation, the migrant economy has taken a hard beating. It was repeatedly asserted in our interviews, that the vacuum in agricultural growth and productivity has adversely affected the local economy, driving people to pursue easier and more profitable ventures such as the drug trade. Very often, it was alleged that, this has led a large number of people, predominantly migrants, into becoming drug users.


Unemployment

In its election campaign in 2012, the Congress has claimed that nearly 75 lakh youth are unemployed in Punjab at the moment. The concern has been around unemployment in educated youth. While the overall unemployment is 3% in the state, it is 7.7% among rural youth (between the age group of 15 and 29 years) and 6.3% among urban youth. Since 1980, the number of educated and unemployed youth has been worryingly on the rise.

Administrative and legal responses tailored to a specific socio-economic topography would be more effective than the homogenous approaches that have been adopted in Punjab.

The annual statistical abstract for the year 2014, based on a survey conducted by the Economic and Statistical Organization, reveals some interesting trends regarding the educated unemployed in the state. The aggregate of educated unemployed rose considerably in 2013 and 2014, the critical years when drug use and arrests under the NDPS Act also increased exponentially. Even as the unskilled labour found it tough to enter the job market, there was a sharp increase in the graduate and skilled unemployed category. The border districts where the drug menace is severe, especially Amritsar, have particularly registered a high count of unemployment across categories -- educated, uneducated, skilled and unskilled. It is indicated that this scale of unemployment is driving the youth to be consumers and pedlars.

Assessment

Fluctuations in the economy greatly impact the social aspects of governance. There appears to be a direct correlation between the economic downturn experienced by the state and a sudden surge in the drug market and consumption in Punjab. Although porous borders have been blamed for the increased inflow of drugs, the escalation in their consumption can only be explained through close observation of a range of factors, including the local economy. Unemployment, an agrarian crisis and the migrant economy have, above other factors, influenced the evolution of the drug market. It is only fair to assert that administrative and legal responses tailored to a specific socio-economic topography would be more effective than the homogenous approaches that have been adopted in Punjab recently.

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