Punjab has lost one generation to militancy, and the next generation to drugs. I hear this lament over and over again, whenever I travel into Punjab. The drugs problem is one of many faces of a deeply troubled society. Punjab’s young people are enmeshed in a kind of collective depression, not very different from what I observe in Kashmir and Manipur. The sources of their anguish are many.

The Army’s storming of the Golden Temple in 1984, which was followed, months later, by the brutal mass slaughter of Sikhs in Delhi, and other parts of the country, and finally by a ferocious decade of militancy, have left large wounds that still fester. Grim memories linger of forced disappearances of young men, fake encounter killings, mass cremations and years of desperate vigil by loved ones, clinging to the fragile hope that their sons, husbands and brothers would be returned to them one day. The failures of the justice system to punish the perpetrators of the human rights violations during militancy, and the communal carnage of 1984, continue to rankle.

The lost generation

There are other sicknesses in the soul of this troubled land as well. There is the muffled violence against girls and women reflected in one of the worst sex ratios in India. Another unspoken secret is of the humiliating treatment of Dalit Sikhs, and of the wide prevalence among them of bonded labour. Farming is increasingly getting trapped in an agro-ecological crisis of reckless overuse of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Governments are hopelessly corrupt, inept and uncaring.

Mounted over all these is the epidemic of runaway drug abuse. The numbers are hotly disputed. With drugs, for the first time, becoming the political question for the Assembly elections scheduled in 2017, the state government is defensive and in vigorous denial. However in an affidavit to the High Court, the Punjab government has admitted that in two-thirds of rural Punjab households, at least one male is addicted to drugs. The administration began reluctantly, and belatedly, awakening to this deadly social epidemic only in recent years. An estimated 5,000 men undergo treatment in 51 centres across the state, much too small for the epidemic scale of this humanitarian crisis. But a much larger number of young men fall prey to a massive rash of illegal centres with untrained staff, where they are reported to be chained and beaten.

It is not surprising therefore that elders across Punjab today mourn the loss of an entire generation. A recent United Nations report estimates that Punjab has the second highest numbers of drug addicts in India. They abuse charas, country liquor, smack, heroin, painkillers, amphetamines, opium, and even lizards’ tails.

Punjab is reportedly the transit route for international drugs to Indian cities, and overseas. These routes were charted and refined during the years of militancy. But Punjab quickly became not just a transit but also a destination, as the youth in the state learnt to consume and traffic drugs. There are large peddlers with powerful drug mafias with their reach across many international and state borders. However, within Punjab, it is reported that many drug users also traffic drugs in small quantities, largely to finance their drug habits.

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, sometimes swallowing 100 pills a day, peddling their blood, stealing, falling into debt, forcing their wives and mothers to part with their hard-earned money intended to fill their children’s stomachs. Some even sell their homes to finance their drugs. 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 learnt it by watching their siblings.

Fight for survival

Three years ago, during a visit to Amritsar, in the course of a study we were engaged in about the situation of single women, local activists took me to visit what was intriguingly called a widows colony. This is a working class settlement in Maqboolpura in Amritsar, not far from the Golden Temple.

Maqboolpura’s erstwhile predominantly Muslim population emptied out during Partition, and was replaced mainly by poor, working-class Sikhs, and Hindu refugees from across the border. I assumed that this colony of widows was a legacy of the years of militancy. I was wrong. The women were martyred to drugs. When in 1999, Tribune reporter Varinder Walia found that 30 women were widowed in this same neighbourhood because their husbands fell to drug abuse in the space of three years, he named it the widows’ colony. The name has stuck. At the time I visited, local social workers had recorded 330 widows, all sacrificed to intoxicants and drugs. The government paid some of them a monthly pension of as little as Rs 250.

In virtually every second household in the settlement, family members report the loss of at least one, if not more, young men, to drug abuse. There is hardly a single home free from the grip of drugs. In one home, I met a wan young woman, barely 20. She was thin, her eyes glazed and vacant, numbed with suffering accumulated through her short life. Her father succumbed to drugs when she was a child. Her mother was forced to marry her husband’s younger brother, who too fell to drugs and died a few years later. Her older brother 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. She did not know how long he would live. Like several hundred wives, daughters, mothers and sisters in Maqboolpura, her life-sentence is that of hard labour. She cleans dishes in people’s homes, trying to keep her family alive.

Men in this colony, when they can, mostly pull rickshaws or drive auto-rickshaws. But as they slip into the world of drugs, manual work becomes impossible. It is the women in their homes – wives, mother, sisters, and daughters – who mainly bring food to the table by working as domestic helps.

But women and children are often compelled to survive by brewing and selling illicit country liquor, and then they graduate to even more deadly drugs. It is not uncommon to see children adeptly negotiating with drunken customers. Many drop out early from school to help their mothers brew liquor or peddle drugs to bring home money to feed the family.

Drug-free haven

I found no significant official interventions in this colony. I found evidence instead of an uncaring, or worse, complicit administration, which took no steps to control the sale of drugs. Too little was being done to assist young men to escape the habit, to enable women to survive penury and violence, and above all no steps were being taken to protect the children growing up in this settlement.

The intense vulnerability of these children to the permissive culture of drugs and violence within which they are being raised came home, literally, to a local school teacher, Ajit Singh, popularly known as Masterji. This was a decade earlier, when his son, around 10 at that time, asked his father for money to buy a gillasi, a glass of country liquor, which is openly sold in every street corner of Maqboolpura.

Masterji thought hard about ways to protect his son from being drawn into the death-trap of drugs. But at the same time, he reflected on the predicament and vulnerability of all children his son’s age being raised in Maqboolpura. His wife Amandeep and he, both government school teachers of modest means, agonised for a while. They resolved then to create a safe haven for the children of the settlement that would enable them to study and stay clean of drugs while they grew.

For this, they 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.

Being the change

More than the academic engagement, children found welcome escape for many hours in an environment free from drugs and violence. As 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. They are proud that most children who sit on their benches never fall to drugs.

The duo also organised many of their student volunteers into an anti-drug abuse squad, which travels across the state during vacations, warning the youth of the dangers of drugs – how it traps not just the drug user but his entire family in a cycle of suffering, violence, unemployment and crime.

I met some of these young people. They spoke of growing crime in their neighbourhood, by desperate drug-users on motorcycles 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, in other lands, parents raise and protect their children. Here, children were drawing up plans to protect their elders.

I recalled the collective grief of the proud people of Punjab, mourning that they had lost one entire generation to militancy, and the next generation to drugs. But after I met Masterji’s young students in the widows’ colony, I thought: Maybe a third generation will at last cure Punjab of the sickness that has pierced so deep into its soul.