Sunday, September 26

The Poverty of Plenty

It’s not stones. It’s not land. Something else is eating away India’s most robust state. Vijay Simha tracks in Tehelka, what it calls, the unnoticed story of the year

The 25 crore man stepped in like a thief, eyes wary, searching for a sign that he must run. Jagbeer Singh. Farmer. Bus conductor. Father. Heroin smuggler. Jailbird. Nobody. After months of being a recluse, Jagbeer, one-time shining hope for friends and family, emerged into a Punjab he didn’t like. When he was caught with 25 kilos of heroin in 1997, worth Rs. 25 crore in the international market, Jagbeer became an instant celeb: his was the biggest heroin haul then. “They used to come to see what a Rs. 25 crore man looked like,” he says. Now, when he’s out after 12 years, only two kinds are interested. The sleuths, who come every fortnight to see if Jagbeer has anything to snitch on, and the peddlers, waiting to see if he is game for another shot. “I stay in and wonder how it happened to me. When I went into jail, there were a dozen drug offenders. When I was released, there were 65. There are a thousand peddlers in Punjab today,” he says. He doesn’t know it yet, but experts have begun to put an expiry date on Punjab, once the sentinel state of India. And it’s not just drugs that’s doing it.
I am too scared,” says Jagbeer. He has a high pitched voice, a curiously feminine touch. He is about six feet tall, and sports a beard and short hair, both of which he colours black. We are in a resort on the outskirts of Amritsar where a marriage party is on, loud and expensive. No one knows him there. It’s the only place he’ll talk. “My father died when I was two. He didn’t wake up one day after he drank too much the previous night. When I was 16, I began to farm. My brother-in-law used to drive a mini bus. I joined him as conductor. Slowly, I began to drive as well. I used to take the bus to Jithaul, a village near Amritsar. There were smugglers in that village who used to travel in my vehicle. I became friends with one of them. For five years we were good friends. Then, in 1995, he asked me to go with him to pick up gold.
“We carried dollars worth 2 crore and went to Samba in Jammu. Our Pakistani counterparts were to give us the gold there. We reached the spot and the lights went on. The Border Security Force (BSF) had trapped us. There was an informer among us who didn’t want me getting close to the boss. I had to help my friend with money for bail. I sold my bus and got him the money. He said he would repay me. One day in 1997, he asked me to go with a vehicle. He said just go and take your share of the money. It was a Tata Sierra and there were 25 kilos of heroin in it. I got greedy. I needed money and I thought I’ll get my due. When a Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) team stopped me at Ajmer, I was shocked. They knew who I was and what I was carrying. I was sentenced to 12 years. I lost respect. Even an addict is pardoned but not a peddler. When they released me, I didn’t know what to do. When I returned home, I found my daughter had got married in my absence. I am now caught between the police and the drug runners. My past is my present and my future. I can’t be anyone else,” says Singh. He leaves the room, a man with no esteem.
In Punjab today, almost every conversation has a mention of someone ruined by alcohol and drug abuse. In schools, hotels, malls, business deals, farms, industries, police stations, hospitals and homes. There are also concerns that the yield from the farms is dropping; there are concerns that industry is moving out of the state; and there are concerns that the Khalistan demand might be revived. All of them are adding to a general sense of alarm that catastrophe is on the way. Principally because everything Punjab does, it overdoes.
In 2009-2010, they drank nearly 29 crore bottles of Punjab Made Liquor (PML), Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) and beer. This is apart from illicit brew, liquor brought by foreigners, defence sales, and stuff brought in from other states. Punjab has about 2.5 crore people, which equates to around 10 bottles of 750 ml liquor per person a year. From this, take away the children, the old, the ailing, and the followers of various sects who are required to be teetotallers. The consumption of liquor then rises dramatically for the drinking population.
Even this is loose change compared to narcotic and psychotropic substances. In 2010 so far, the Special Operations Cell has seized 80 kilos of heroin and smack, 14 kilos of opium, two quintals of poppy husk, and, in a first, 18 kilos of methamphetamine. This is apart from the seizures of the BSF, DRI, Customs, and the Punjab Police. For perspective, the normal rate of seizures is about five to 10 percent of the stuff in transit. In addition, there are thousands of chemists and pharmacies that sell pills at two to three times the official price without prescription. In all, that is a staggering amount of booze and drugs in Punjab. The result: a dramatic increase in admissions into drug and alcohol rehabs.
“We have found drug addicts from the age of 13. Forty percent are below 50 years, 15 percent are above 50 years and half are women. For all of them, Punjab has only 89 de-addiction centres, of which only 23 are recognised. I would say that 75 percent of Punjab’s youth are addicted to drugs. If this continues, the story of Punjab will end by 2030,” says Ranvinder Singh Sandhu, Professor of Sociology in Guru Nanak Dev University. Sandhu has written the only official study of addiction in Punjab, Drug Addiction in Punjab: A Sociological Study. The 2009 publication was such a hit with officials starved of information on addiction in Punjab that it went into reprint.
Almost all the heroin comes from Punjab’s border with Pakistan. It is a fascinating process. There is a border fence on the Indian side, about a kilometre and a half from the villages, which cuts through farms owned by Indians. This means that portions of Indian farms are across the border, up to 500 metres into Pakistan. After this is zero point, from where the Pakistani side begins. The BSF, which mans the fenced border, issues permits to Indian farmers and their labourers to cross over and work on their farmlands on the other side. This is allowed from 10 am to 4 pm Curfew begins at 6 p.m. This means no one is allowed near the fence after that. There are BSF posts every 500 metres. The guards have powerful binoculars with night vision. They also carry INSAS rifles. The fence is electrified at 6 pm every day. The lights also come on, so powerful that the whole place is dazzling. You can see an ant crawl in the blazing lights. Theoretically, it should be impossible for anything to be dumped over.
It’s close to 5 pm in Ratoke village in Tarn Taran district. There are only two more villages after this between India and Pakistan. In an hour, curfew would be in place at the border. In one of the homes in the village, a man is preparing fodder for cattle. The home belongs to a heroin smuggler who has just returned after serving 12 years in prison, like Jagbeer. His son was caught with heroin separately and he too has served time. It’s the best place to understand how it works. This is the version of a drug courier. “The chain starts when a drug kingpin in Delhi calls his counterpart in Pakistan and orders a drop. The Pakistani smuggler calls his couriers in Pakistani villages near the border. These couriers call their Indian counterparts and give them the place and time for the drop. This is possible because the Indian couriers have Pakistani SIM cards, which work near the border. This also means that Indian security agencies can’t trace the calls because they are on Pakistani networks.
“Delivery is at night. The heroin comes in packets of a kilo each. A 40-kilo consignment will have 40 packets, and so on. The packets are mostly hurled over the fence by men with strong arms. They land in the farms on the Indian side, from where they are picked up. At times they are slid across in plastic pipes, which are assembled near the border and can be up to a kilometre long. Or, they make their way through the places where there’s a waterway and no fencing is possible. Two packets would have markings, which indicate they also contain mobile phones with SIM cards inside. They are marked 1 and 2, for two cell phones. The first Indian courier who picks up the consignment near the border switches on the first mobile phone after he has gone 5 km into Punjab. He gets a call giving him directions on where to go. They’ll ask you to go from one spot to another until they are satisfied you are not being trailed.
“Sometimes we have to travel 20 km or more before the heroin and the mobile phone are collected. The second courier, who collects the consignment from the first courier, then switches on the second mobile phone. He gets a call asking him to deliver the consignment in either Delhi or Mumbai. The stuff reaches Delhi by 11 am the next day. It is easier during winter because of the heavy fog. Big consignments are delivered in winter. Prices are fixed ahead. The first courier gets Rs 20,000 per kilo of heroin. Forty kilos would mean Rs.8 lakh. This is divided among the number of men employed by the first courier to collect the whole consignment. Counterfeit currency is sent the same way.”
This is the principal activity at the border in Punjab. Most border villages are swarming with sleuths from various agencies like RAW, IB, Punjab Police or BSF. Yet, it goes on. Some sleuths estimate that 350 packets of heroin reach Punjab every day. It makes Punjab one of the busiest drug transit points on earth. Sleuths say every village at the border has at least two couriers, who each employ about a dozen men or so. There are 245 villages in Punjab near the border. So, there are about a thousand men who have at some point smuggled heroin into India from Punjab.
But despite the boom in the drug trade, it is still not the core activity of Punjab. The state lives in its fields and that’s where the next concern is coming from. Punjab has 1.5 percent of India’s area, producing almost 25 percent of India’s wheat and close to 15 percent rice. Almost all of Punjab is cultivable. Everything is so green here that it’s like a blessing. So what do the farmers do? They plant rice and wheat, and rice and wheat. The moment they are done with wheat, they get on to rice. This creates a monoculture, planting the same thing and eroding soil quality. “There’s nothing new going in, so the soil has problems. The water table has also gone down because of this,” says Manjit Singh Kang, Vice- Chancellor of the Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) in Ludhiana. “They are burning seven kilos of nitrogen, a kilo of phosphorus and 11 kilos of potash for a tonne of paddy. They are burning Rs. 200 crore from their pockets. This causes asthma and other pollutionrelated health problems.”
Yield is also dropping. In 2000-2001, 45 quintals of wheat was produced per hectare. In 2005-2006, this was down to 40 quintals. It could drop further this year. Then, there’s the urge to feel good. Some estimates say Punjab has 12 lakh tubewells, where six lakh are enough. Most of them use high power pumps, which keep drawing water from the ground. There’s such a huge wastage of water and electricity in Punjab that the government is being forced to consider curbs on the use of tubewells and free power to farmers. In many farms, the water pumped out is used to bathe livestock. On top of this, is the mania for tractors. There are nearly four lakh tractors in Punjab, almost five times the required number. Many small farmers buy expensive tractors on loans and are then unable to clear the debt. In this year’s kisan mela at the PAU, farmers converged on brand new machines worth 16 lakh though none of them probably needed them. There’s only 1,000 hours of work for a tractor in a year in Punjab. This, experts say, can easily be done by renting tractors instead of buying them.
All of this may have contributed to two lakh farmers leaving farming in Punjab over the past few years. While this is in keeping with the international trend where many are leaving farming, in Punjab there’s no thought on how to deal with it. Land holdings are reducing progressively as the land gets divided within families. There is also a huge concern on the massive use of pesticides, which began with the first Green Revolution. Punjab uses the maximum amount of pesticides in the country and it’s got to a stage where it is more like an addiction. More and more chemicals are needed to produce the same amount of grain.
Such is the amount of pesticide in the groundwater that it is believed to be the principal cause of cancer in the Bhatinda belt. Hundreds of cases of cancer occur here, including even Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal’s wife, who has just returned after treatment from the US. While Badal’s wife is able to get decent treatment, the rest of the villagers catch the Jammu Tawi Express between Jammu and Jaipur, which leaves Bhatinda at 9.30 pm every day. So many people take this train for cancer treatment in Bikaner that the train is called the ‘Cancer Train’ in Punjab. Every village in the Bhatinda belt has scores of cancer patients, in some cases several in a family. Cancer deaths are common too.
Those who escape cancer are down with Hepatitis C. There are scores in the villages of Punjab, again with little access to medical care. Organic farming, touted as an alternative to chemical farming, is in its infancy here. Estimates say that all the manure in Punjab can only meet 30 percent of the demand for fertiliser. This is not bad to start with, but there is huge resistance among the farmers to make the shift. This is the backdrop in which talk of a second Green Revolution has begun. “Green revolutions don’t come when you say they should. Nobody has defined a second Green Revolution. We are looking for something we don’t know anything about. India produces 234 million tonnes of food grain. We will need more than 400 million tonnes in 2050 when we will be the No. 1 in population. That would be a Green Revolution, nothing else,” says Kang.
While this is the case with agriculture, industry in Punjab too is in trouble. There is virtually a process of de-industrialisation happening. For instance, there were 127 textile processing units in Amritsar in 1990. There are now only 20. Ludhiana, the industrial hub of Punjab, is in the process of shifting small-scale industries out of city limits. This has resulted in a sealing drive similar to the one in Delhi some time ago. Large-scale units have held on, mainly Hero in the cycle industry and Oswal in the woollens sector. But industry in the rest of Punjab is shifting out. Says Amarjit Singh, President of the Corduroy Manufacturers Association of India: “First, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh have a tax holiday and several subsidies. Punjab is like dry roti. They are like bread and butter. I don’t need a passport to cross over. Those who can, have gone.
Second, Punjab has acute shortage of electricity. There will be no shortage of power in Himachal for the next 50 years. Third, the infrastructure is poor in Punjab. The roads are bad and pollution clearance is extremely difficult. Fourth, land prices are exorbitant in Punjab. Why should anyone waste money on it?”
So, the decline in agriculture and industry has a clear cause and effect equation. In agriculture, there is an attitude issue and it is beginning to hurt. The Punjab farmer overspends on pesticide, tubewells and tractors, and overdraws on water. He is in a hurry and hurts the soil and environment in the process. In industry, there is an issue of investment and profit so they are moving to better options in neighbouring states. The larger industry is able to hold on but the medium and smaller units have moved on. These are reversible trends. It’s the dependence on alcohol and drugs though that is the killer.
It has taken years of indulgence for Punjab to reach a crisis situation in alcohol dependence. It’s taken far fewer years for drug abuse. This is mainly because the rich have too much money and nothing to do. Many have sold land in villages to cash in on the land boom. The poor in any case have nothing to do because there are far fewer jobs. So the rich do IMFL and heroin. The poor do PML, pills and poppy husk. It’s such a given that farm owners buy strips of painkillers as part of the deal with the labour. In many cases, farm labour settles for Rs. 200 a day and two strips of pills. And it’s all part of the great gregarious Punjabi. They have convinced themselves that they are tough and funloving. So, it’s not a problem. This is what worries Ravneet Singh Bittoo, president of the Punjab Youth Congress and Lok Sabha member. Bittoo came through a tough election process, the first initiated by Rahul Gandhi in the Youth Congress. He is the grandson of Beant Singh, who was assassinated in office.
“Part of the problem is that this is the new war. In future, armies will not fight, so this could be Pakistan’s gameplan to weaken Punjab. Then, our system is totally corrupt. They do nothing though they see that every village has at least two chemists though there is no hospital for miles. Half a village leaves for the US and the other half has earned money through sale of land. They get into drugs. It’s so serious that Rahul Gandhi has asked us not to ask people for votes and reach every home instead. He has asked us to drop everything and get on the drug front. I believe a whole race is under threat going by the levels of impotence caused by drugs. We may have lost this generation but I am intent on saving the next one. We want an end to indiscriminate medical shops. We want villages where no one below 35 dies. We want to socially boycott drug dealers. We want the elders to sit in protest outside pharmacies. We want to put the names of peddlers on the walls. If we do this, we may still save Punjab. Else, I think Punjab won’t reach the year 2050,” says Bittoo.
This volatile mix is putting life into a section of people who’ve largely been dormant for 20 years or so, the militants who fought in the Khalistan movement. Simranjit Singh Mann is busy canvassing for Khalistan in a series of public engagements. His party, the Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar), hopes to win some seats in the next Assembly poll 18 months away. “We have been left holding the baby. Others who were with us, like Parkash Singh Badal and Amarinder Singh, have joined more profitable parties like the Akali Dal (Badal) and the Congress. We will not rest until we get Khalistan, but this time I am fighting a peaceful and democratic battle,” says Mann. Sandeep Kaur, widow of slain Babbar Khalsa International terrorist Dharam Singh Kashtiwal, keeps the memory of Operation Bluestar alive in a trust she runs in Amritsar. “Our wounds are still raw,” she says, “how can we be at peace?”
Concerns are more immediate in a small school in one of Punjab’s more notorious colonies, Maqboolpura in Amritsar, a wasteland of families ravaged by drugs and alcohol. Parvjot, a precocious four-year-old, is conversing with Sarbjeet Gill, a teacher. The conversation is easily the most important in Parvjot’s life. Her admission into school depends on what she says. Suddenly she turns to the teacher. “Would you like a drink? My grandmother makes liquor at home. Many people drink it every night and give money,” she says. It was 9.30 am and Sarbjeet wasn’t thinking of a drink. She looked at Parvjot and asked: “Would you take money from me also?” The reply was instant. “No. For you, we’d give it free.”

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