FIROZPUR — Until a few years ago, Dheeraj Singh went to the gym every day — with dreams of becoming a professional weightlifter. Now he can barely lift his own body weight. What happened in between was heroin.
"I was against all these things. In fact, I used to help people get off of it," the 35-year-old Indian man recalls. "But my friends kept insisting that I try it once. And when I finally did, I liked it. A few more times and you're addicted. That’s what it does."
Every time Singh tried to give up the addiction he ended up plunging deeper into it, and his debts kept piling up. "Only an addict knows what happens when you don’t get the daily fix," he says. "It's terrible — red watery eyes, runny nose, frightening palpitations. The craving is so strong you could even commit a crime. You could even murder someone for money."
Singh lives in the Firozpur district of Punjab. The northern state gets its name from the five rivers that run through it. But in recent years, Punjab has earned a reputation for what many call "the sixth river" — drugs.
People call it the village of drug widows.
"The entire state is engulfed by drugs, especially the youth," says social activist Brij Bedi. "The problem is so huge that it's become like a river. Everybody here talks of the sixth river: It is this river of drugs and addiction."
Government studies suggest that two out of three households in rural Punjab have at least one drug addict in the family. In urban areas, where drugs are more readily available, the situation isn't any better. And it's left a long trail of pain and misery.
The village of Maqboolpura in the Amritsar district is a case in point. People call it the village of drug widows because in almost every one of its approximately 400 families, there is at least one widow of a drug addict. Mandeep, 45, has already lost her husband to drugs. She now fears for her son, also a drug addict, who she hasn’t seen for months.
Trailer for the Bollywood movie Udta Punjab
"What can a mother like me do except cry and curse my fate. They do drugs and suffer as long as they live, and one day they die leaving us shattered and crying day and night," she says. "Ultimately, it's the women who bear the brunt of it all."
The Pakistan connection
Most of the opiate drugs plaguing Punjab originate in Afghanistan and enter the country through neighboring Pakistan. Border security guards are vigilant. But the drug trade continues to flourish. Some accuse Pakistan of using the drugs as a form of proxy war to destabilize India. Others accuse India's ruling establishment of providing patronage to drug peddlers.
Bhagwant Mann, a parliamentarian in Punjab, notes that Kashmir and Rajasthan — which also share a border with Pakistan — don't suffer in the same way from drugs. "Why is this only a problem in Punjab? Because the politicians and people in the administration are involved," he says.
Raids on factories have shown that there is also a problem here with synthetic drugs. There is evidence too, in some cases, of police involvement in drug rackets.
For a long time, the local government remained in denial about the magnitude of the problem. It took a Bollywood film last year, and some political campaigning after that, to bring the problem to national focus.
Now it is the main issue on which Punjab's current assembly election is being fought, with all the various political parties promising to eradicate the drug menace. Which group has the most convincing argument? The answer to that question will come next month, when the election results come in.