“I can safely say 50 to 60 percent of Shimla youths are drug addicts, consumers and even peddlers,” said Gaurav, 40, who runs a Drug Rehabilitation and Counselling Centre in Shimla. Once an addict himself, Gaurav said in many cases parents are not willing to accept that their child could be an addict. In his own case, Gaurav credits his parents for helping him fight his drug habit by sending him to a rehabilitation centre in Punjab. Now, Gaurav is doing his bit for others who have fallen into the same habit. “Not all are lucky like me to be alive. In the past five years or so, I have enabled 250 youths in Shimla to recover. Who can be a better counsellor than me? I have seen the hell,” he says.
While Shimla in particular and the state as a whole in general may not be as badly affected as Punjab, where synthetic drugs and narcotics abuse among youth has become a serious problem, the numbers are nevertheless cause for alarm. Data collected last year by a local NGO YES through a special survey among school going students and those attending private coaching classes showed nearly 65 percent of the students were into drugs. “More serious is that some of them have shifted over to hard drugs like chitta” said Dr Akarshan Chauhan, who has been active in holding mass awareness drives among students, mostly in schools.
While there is no exact data maintained by police on deaths due to drug overdose, social action groups estimate such deaths in Shimla to be in the range of 15-16 in the past 11 to 12 months, with over 500 youths, girls included, undergoing treatment in local rehabilitation centres.
A problem of alarming proportions
The police in Himachal Pradesh believe that ‘chitta’, the Punjabi name given to a snow-white powdery substance derived from heroin and laced with other chemicals, is finding its way to Himachal as the drug mafia seeks to expand its market. The problem is not confined to any particular demographic.
The drugs are either injected or inhaled directly by the new, young consumers, who are unaware of the consequences or the quantity their bodies can sustain. Take, for example, the case of a 27-year old person of Boileau Ganj area, who died last week at the government-run Indira Gandhi Medical College (IGMC) Shimla due to drug overdose. Deaths from chitta overdose were also reported from Krishna Nagar and Malyana localities in April–May 2019.
“When brought to the hospital, most patients who have taken an overdose are either unconscious or semi-conscious with erratic speech. It’s not difficult to diagnose,” said Dr Ramesh Chand, Deputy Director (Health Services) Himachal Pradesh government. “Most of them admit having consumed some drug (nasha). They also know they are going to die and plead Mujhe bacha lo doctor, fir kabhi nai nasha karunga. But sometimes it’s too late”.
“Youth in Shimla, and other Himachal towns, are increasingly shifting to harder drugs like Chitta,” said Dr Ravi Sharma, head of the psychiatry department at the Indira Gandhi Medical College (IGMC) Hospital. “This dangerous drug causes serious physical and mental problems. It’s horrifying to see the condition of some addicts who need a dose regularly to survive”.
Dr Sharma recalls the recent case of a young patient who had got infected with Hepatitis C as a result of using an unclean syringe, which probably had been used repeatedly by two or more persons. “This is another dangerous dimension of drugs abuse,” he said.
“One reason (for the drug menace) is that Himachal is also a producer of drugs/narcotics. Then there is the inflow from Punjab. Many engaged in the drug trade in Punjab have found greener pastures in Himachal. The easy targets are youths in the 17-27 age group. It is becoming an alarming situation,” said O.P Sharma, a former officer in the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB).
The large presence of foreigners in high-altitudes of Kullu, Manali and Parvarti valleys has given locals a way to find international markets for their drugs. There are large tracts of land, mostly inaccessible forest belts in the hill regions, where people have taken-up illegal cultivation of cannabis and opium. Drives by the police to uproot illegal cannabis and opium crops in Kullu, Malana, a remote village and Manikaran valley have not stopped the flow.
One dose of ‘Chitta’, which is just under a gram, costs Rs 500, a five-fold profit for the dealers. Initially, drug users finance the habit out of their pocket money or from borrowings. But once addicted, many turn to self-financing by becoming peddlers themselves. “Some time back, when we were investigating some cases of theft of theft of stereos and breaking of windscreens of a large number of parked cars during night hours, it was found that the accused were mainly drug addicts,” said additional SP (Shimla) Praveer Thakur.
The spread of the problem can be assessed from the fact that most of the users in Shimla and nearby towns of Theog, Rampur, Rohru and localities like Panthaghati, Sanjauli, Summerhill, Malyana, New Shimla and Krishna Nagar have now become peddlers. Small shops around educational institutions have become the hub of “chitta’ sales. A private university in the outskirts of town, where a large number of foreigners are studying, is also turning into a new drug destination.
Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Shimla Omapati Jamwal admits that the police are facing a challenge in dealing with this problem and tracking peddlers. Many parents avoid disclosing the real cause of death. As police records are not able to conclusively attribute many of the deaths to drug overdose, the actual number of victims is likely to be higher than shown in police statistics.
In 2018, Shimla police seized 55.900 kg of charas, 3.325 kg of opium and 930 gm of chitta arresting a total of 206 persons, including three foreign nationals. But this year, by May 2019, the police had already seized 7.364 kg of charas, 3.932 kg opium and 1,328 kg of Chitta. The number of arrests during this period were 99, including 74 women. Their cases are at different stages of trial, with half of them out on bail. Some of those arrested were addicts and have been referred to rehabilitation centres.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg. “Recoveries and arrests barely signify the extent of the problem,” said O.P Sharma.
Sharma believes if the steps announced by the government (proposed at a conference of chief ministers of Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand in August 2018) are not implemented effectively by the enforcement machinery, Himachal will become the new ‘drug adda’. Among the steps proposed was sharing of intelligence inputs on drug peddlers by the police, joint operations to raid hide-outs and setting-up of a joint task force to combat the drug menace.
Adding to the problem is the clear political patronage that locals engaged in illegal cannabis cultivation enjoy, as shared by a senior IAS officer who served as DC Kullu some years back. “The police actions are just symbolic and random, done either under court orders or based on media reports,” said the officer.
The government has set-up a special cell in every police station to deal with drug peddlers. The police have roped in psychologists and are conducting regular counselling sessions in schools and educational institutions. Parents are also invited to these sessions. But the police again face a shortage of manpower and specialist investigators.
At the state level, the government has set-up an Anti–Narcotics wing headed by the SP. Special CID teams have been told to keep surveillance of all vendors and shops near education institutions.
As a deterrent measure, the state assembly passed an amendment to the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act in December 2018, making recovery of drugs from a person a non-bailable offense. But the bill still awaits the centre’s approval. Earlier in July 2018, the High Court had expressed its dismay over the inability of the government and its agencies to effectively deal with drug abuse among youth. The court asked the government, particularly the Chief Minister to frame a concrete policy.
Dharampal Thakur, a Congress leader whose NGO Shimla Youth Progressive Association, is working on the drugs issue, said, “Rehabilitation is the only solution. The government, so far has lagged behind in this area. I appreciate some steps the government has recently taken but implementation is very poor. I gave a list of 125 to 130 drug peddlers to the police and escorted the raiding parties to their hide-outs. The impact is either negligible or just temporary. It’s a worrying situation.”
Rehabilitation centres inadequate
In all, there are just four private rehabilitation centres in Shimla with about 250 persons patients, both male and female. But not all can afford the rehab process as the process costs anything between Rs 12,000 and Rs 25,000 per month depending upon the kind of services and facilities being offered, which is costlier than in such centres in Punjab. The government has so far not set-up any rehab centre, though many addicts are admitted to the IGMC hospital and treated as psychiatric cases.
Needed: A two-pronged strategy
Experts meanwhile suggest a two-pronged strategy to deal with the menace. While enforcement agencies have to act strongly against the peddlers, there has to be simultaneous social action, they said.
“There are multiple factors pushing youth towards drugs,” said Prajwal Busta, a Block Development Committee (BDC) Chairman and a social activist. “One, they fall in the trap of peer group pressure without understanding the consequences. Two, lack of parental control. I think creating awareness about the harmful effects of drugs is the most important thing.
Talk to people in the know in Himachal Pradesh about this problem, and you’ll be reminded of the movie ‘Udta Punjab’ that dealt with rising drug abuse among Punjab’s youth. Many fear there could soon be a ‘Udta Himachal’ too.