The row over Udta Punjab shows how news reports on statistics and political mudslinging have done nothing but sensationalise the issue.
The tussle between the censor board and the makers of Udta Punjab has highlighted the role of the media in the issue of drug abuse in Punjab.
When the media acts as a public sentinel, it is widely appreciated, but its excesses in that role, which are quite frequent, require further scrutiny. The sudden coming to light of the ‘drug problem’ in Punjab during the 2012 assembly elections illustrates the unintended consequences of excessive media presence influencing policy decisions. By abandoning independent enquiry and relying solely on fodder provided by politicians, the media has blended fact with fiction.
Punjab before 2013
Punjab has traditionally been regarded as the transit point in the trafficking of drugs, especially heroin, from Iran and Afghanistan. But from being a mere trafficking route, the state eventually became a market for local consumption, because of unemployment as well as agricultural and economic failure. Arrests under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act in Punjab have consistently increased since 2004. Between 2011 and 2014, there was a steep increase in the total arrests made, from 6,125 to 17,001 individuals. The arrests were made mostly for the consumption of ‘small and intermediate quantities’, implying that the people in question were individual consumers.
These numbers are a result of years of neglect and indifference on the part of the authorities. Although they are fully aware of the magnitude of the problem, there has been barely any effort by them to proactively address it. The ineffectiveness of existing rehabilitation and de-addiction institutions makes this governmental apathy glaring.
During the campaign for the 2012 Punjab state assembly elections, a stray remark by the Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, that 70% of Punjab’s youth was addicted to drugs, attracted attention for the wrong reasons. This statistic was in fact mis-quoted by him from a study conducted by the Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar. The study said that 73.5% of the sample size of 600 were in the age group of 16-35. Gandhi’s comment and the subsequent mud-slinging by political parties fuelled the imagination of the popular media but did little to portray the actual anomalies in the system. Several political groups used the media platform to rally behind or play down the Akali Dal, which eventually won.
The victory of Parkash Singh Badal’s troupe, however, was not without a substantial loss of reputation. It appeared that the Akali Dal-BJP coalition had inherited a problem state – one waiting for a clear demonstration of political will and for those in power to ensure the immediate redressal of the drug situation.
Ineffective action and media representation
The new Punjab government’s response to the drug problem consisted of issuing internal orders to agencies like the police and the health department to undertake immediate action that was both visible and effective. As several off-the-record, informal interviews with stakeholders testify, the first directive of the state government was to arrest people en masse, irrespective of the nature of their involvement in drug consumption or trade. This led to a large number of arbitrary arrests and prison overcrowding. The police, sources claim, were given a mandate to round up every pedlar, user and, sometimes, even relatives of pedlars.
One result of this was the inflation of the officially-recorded numbers of drug users and pedlars in the state. In public perception, the number of arrests were equated with the scale of the problem. To counter this potentially damaging image, the state government issued further informal instructions to bring down the number of arrests. As the people who were being arrested were largely users and addicts, not traffickers, this did not have any impact on the drug menace in the state, only altering the arrest statistics. The graph below shows that the number of cases registered and persons arrested gradually increased till 2011. Then there was an abrupt rise between 2012 and 2014, and a sudden drop in 2015.
The state government projected these numbers as an indicator of good governance and effective enforcement. The media, which had not cared about the drug problem except for brief periods during elections, easily accepted this. There was no objective enquiry into the nature of the problem, the extent of its decline and the quality of the measures taken by the enforcement authorities. It was surely evident that a public health problem of addiction could not be addressed solely through strict policing. The drastic rise and fall in the numbers produced sensationalised news reports, with the real problem being rendered invisible.
The problem has resurfaced
With the next assembly elections around the corner, the political parties involved continue to use drugs as an instrument of attack against each other. Each party promises an apparently unique solution. The incumbent state government continues to try to overcome adverse publicity by making the problem invisible, instead of working on feasible and effective solutions. This partly explains the anguish and frustration around discussions of reality, in the form of films or other media, as was seen in the case of Udta Punjab.
The media, both local and national, has been irresponsible and reckless in reporting the drug situation in Punjab. What is needed is a thorough study and accurate reporting to channel resources and direct administrative attention towards treating the drug problem as a healthcare issue. Instead, the focus has been on selling half-truths, of beefed-up statistics on the seizures of drugs and arrests, and titillating the public. The police concede that the massive crackdown of 2013 that resulted in the mitigation of drug trade and use was a pyrrhic victory. Effectively, the problem was buried alive instead of being eliminated. The state still sits atop an explosive situation and continues to be blind to the real problem, with the active complicity of an injudicious media.
Sakshi is a research fellow at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, New Delhi.