Free drugs, anyone? How India’s Punjab campaigners are canvassing for votes
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Free drugs, anyone? How India’s Punjab campaigners are canvassing for votes

DRUGS and booze are allegedly being distributed in the addiction-blighted state of Punjab, India, in return for votes in the coming state elections.

According to an Associated Foreign Press (AFP) report via Straits Times, election officials believe candidates are attempting to woo addicts with free drugs, even providing doorstep delivery services to those that profess their support on polling day, Feb 4.

Punjab has long battled with the scourge of addiction with drug consumption in the state equalling three times the national average. If the allegations are true, this influx of free, party-provided narcotics will likely compound the problem and leave these communities more desperate than ever.

It is the rural communities that are being worst-hit by the damaging election drive, officials say. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and opposition leader Rahul Gandhi have focused their campaign rallies in large towns and cities in the state, apparently neglecting to approach the poorer, more rural areas with their campaign rhetoric. Instead, the parties are appealing to the voter’s more basic urges – drug addiction and alcoholism.

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While the exchange of electrical items or cash has long been common in some parts of the country, it is only recently that they are seeking a sharp rise in narcotics.

“In 2012, when we conducted the Punjab state elections, we suspected the use of drugs during polls… and found drugs were in fact a very serious issue,” SY Quraishi, chief commissioner from 2010-12, told AFP.

“In one month alone, we recovered around 55kg of heroin, around 430kg of poppy husk (the raw ingredient of opium) and found almost every psychotropic substance in circulation.”

As the state has long struggled with rising drug addiction among its youth, in particular the men, the issue has become a hot topic in the impending election.

Opposition parties like the Indian National Congress and Aam Aadmi Party blame the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government for neglecting and even encouraging the rampant drug abuse in the state, and the SAD-BJP government accuse opposition parties of distorting facts and insulting the youth of the state.

But while there appears to be plenty of talk, it doesn’t get close to solving the problem – and there is a problem.

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A recent government study, as reported by the BBC, suggests that more than 860,000 young men in the state, between the ages of 15-35, take some form of drugs.

Heroin is the most preferred, used by 53 percent of all addicts. But opium and synthetic drugs such as crystal methamphetamine are also common.

Many blame the state’s proximity to Pakistan, a notorious opium producer that lies just over the border, along with the failing agricultural industry. The stagnation of the once booming industry has left high unemployment among young males and the proximity to Pakistan ensures a steady stream of readily available narcotics.

The high addiction rate makes the youth particularly susceptible to the approaches of those political parties offering to provide them with what they need for free.

Needless to say, the approach doesn’t always have the desired result with many addicts admitting that they will agree with anyone who approaches them with the motive of receiving the free drugs.

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“You never care about who’s going to win. As long as they give you your fix, you promise to vote for them. You make the same promise to whoever comes along,” Rajender, a recovering opium addict, told AFP.

“We know that after the elections, we won’t see them again so you have to enjoy it while it lasts.” Another addict called Indarjeet, who is trying to recover from heroin abuse, said it was “very common” to be offered drugs in return for backing a candidate.

“When they get to the village they say ‘take whatever you want, as long as you vote for our guy’ and then they send someone back later” with drugs or alcohol, he said.

“When you’re offered something for free then of course, you’ll take it. You don’t care about the election, only about feeding your habit.”

While party campaigners and candidates take to the podium in Chandigarh to decry the spread of narcotics in the state and announce their pledges for tackling the growing problem, it seems it is those same campaigners that are flooding the rural villages with the exact drugs that they pledge to eradicate, only acting to worsen the problem.

“We got rid of terrorism only for it to be replaced with narcotics-terrorism,” says JPS Bhatia, director of the Hermitage rehab centre, told the BBC.

“And we just have not been prepared to deal with it or even come to terms with the problems faced by our youth.”