Society

The Lack of Real Data Stands in the Way of Tackling Punjab’s Drug Problem

In the three districts sampled, the police, courts, rehabilitation centres and prison authorities all had incomplete and haphazard records.

Credit: melizards/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Credit: melizards/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In its operation over the past three decades, the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act, 1989 has come under criticism for not only failing to make a visible impact with its twin strategies of deterrence and rehabilitation but also for vesting overwhelming powers in the authorities enforcing it. This has been especially conspicuous in Punjab, which has witnessed a surge in drug use and trafficking. When we decided to conduct a study on the impact of the NDPS Act on the problem of drug abuse in Punjab, the state had registered the highest number of cases for the year 2013 and the second highest for 2014 as per National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) statistics.

At that time, there was no real data regarding the extent of addiction, number of arrests made under various quantities mentioned under the NDPS Act, reasons for disparity in cases registered and actual convictions, and the availability of institutional mechanisms for rehabilitation. The absence of data hindered an accurate assessment of the magnitude of the problem in Punjab. We intended to undertake a comprehensive study of the reasons why the law had failed to achieve its objectives by interacting with and obtaining data from four key actors – the police, the prosecution, the judiciary and rehabilitation centres. To this end, we planned a detailed field study in Punjab to assess the appropriateness and efficacy of deploying criminalisation as a mechanism for achieving social justice in the context of the drug problem.

Methodology

As our sample districts, we selected the urban areas of three districts that had registered a relatively large number of cases – Amritsar, Jalandhar and Patiala. We intended to collect data in the form of structured interviews, records of cases registered and decided, and information from both government and private rehabilitation centres. Based on this empirical evidence, we intended to scrutinise the procedure followed under the statute at different stages of trial, investigation and sentencing, examine the mechanism of rehabilitation and explore the nature and extent of prosecution of individual consumers.

But we encountered major hurdles when we actually began the process of data gathering. Apart from scattered and aggregated numbers by the NCRB on cases registered, there was very little available for analysis. It did not take long to realise that obtaining both documentary information and interviews was difficult. This difficulty was experienced across enforcement and administrative authorities and provided some disconcerting revelations on the integrity of the institutions involved.

Broadly, the nature of the problem with the data across institutions could be classified into four types.

  1. Non-existent data: Some of the important data, like the details of the chargesheet, time taken from registration of FIR to disposal of cases, etc., did not exist.
  2. Compilation errors: There were several factual errors in details of a case, for instance the nature and quantity of the drug involved.
  3. Aggregation errors: The involvement of several authorities, compiling the data at several stages, resulted in erroneous aggregate numbers.
  4. Data of little value due to the absence of efficient slicing i.e. classification according to age, gender, income group etc.

Most agencies were not very forthcoming about sharing data. While the authorities were willing to be interviewed, which was of little consequence as substantial parts of it was informal and not on record, they did not show the same enthusiasm in providing material data. The sensitive nature of the issue also ensured that a few useful non-governmental sources would only speak off the record. Thus, we resorted to filing RTIs to gain information from central and state ministries, the police, prison authorities and the courts. This has constituted a substantial part of our research data. But these too have their drawbacks.

In the information we managed to obtain, numerous problems could be observed.

Police

There are too many authorities involved in the seizure of drugs and arrests made under the NDPS Act. However, the key authorities are the police, who have the largest share of arrests made and cases filed. Although it is a big dataset, it has not been well maintained. There is no compilation of case details and information which can be readily tapped. Thus, assessing the nature of drugs in a particular area, the intensity of trafficking, frequency with which certain sections are using, profile of the accused et al. becomes difficult. Further, vital information like the details of chargesheets filed and the time taken for the disposal of cases was not documented by the police. They directed us to courts and public prosecutors, who in turn directed us back to the police!

Also, police stations have a poor aggregation and maintenance system which results in much of the data being lost when it moves from the lower levels of local thanas to a more centralised system like the NCRB. This mostly explains the disparities in the data available with the NCRB and those available with the state or district authorities.

Authorities like the NCRB maintain bulk data only on the seizures of drugs in commercial quantities, which is unhelpful in assessing the problem which is concentrated more at the level of intermediate and small quantities of drugs. Either they do not have complete data on the number of prosecutions led by them or are unwilling to share the same. Since NCRB is exempted under section 8 of the Right to Information Act, 2005, obtaining this information becomes nearly impossible.  

Courts

Decided cases under the NDPS Act form the major part of the data for analysis. The existing portal for district courts is not easy to navigate. Apart from the technical problems which frequently plague the operation of the website and makes it inaccessible, we have learned that only 30-40% of the cases get uploaded. There are no logical reasons for such inclusion or exclusion of cases. Further, they are uploaded with ample clerical errors, like listing of cases under incidental provisions, errors in entering correct FIR numbers, etc.

Although one could file RTIs to obtain the case details, the responses are bulky and disaggregated, hence making the process inefficient. In most cases, they merely provide you the case status and superficial details, whereas the details of the proceedings and the nature of the orders or judgment is essential to the analysis.

Rehabilitation centres  

Independent inquiries and interviews had not yielded any information with respect to existing government rehabilitation centres. All the responses, except for one, were obtained through RTI applications. First, there is an inordinate delay in providing  responses. The process  typically involves the central authority forwarding the application to relevant hospitals and de-addiction/rehabilitation centres and consumes an unreasonable amount of time. Second, the quality of responses are appalling – there is no consistency in maintaining the data, the profile of the individual is not maintained; some do not even document the recurring instances of drug use. It is true that most rehabilitation and de-addiction centres are poorly equipped and resource strapped. But the nature of their RTI responses elucidating the facilities available in their centres makes it very difficult to do any useful research. From our interviews and visits to rehabilitation centres, it can be fairly asserted that an actual visit is usually more rewarding. But the sheer number of institutions, and time and resource limitations, make such a methodology an inefficient one.

Prison authorities

The problems of delay, evasion and irrelevant information are frequent here too. There is a great deal of unwillingness to share the information not only about the inmates but also on the rehabilitation system within prisons. While some prisons, like Central Jail, Patiala, have maintained and provided well classified data, there have been many others who have responded bluntly with an outright denial of the existence of relevant records. In spite of RTI applications yielding relevant information from a few prisons, for several others there have been multiple follow-ups and reminders.

Arguably, it is difficult to claim that all these obstacles for procuring data are intentional evasions. It could very well be that systemic indifference has become embedded in the concerned institutions. Now, with the release of Udta Punjab and impending state assembly elections, the government has aggressively shut down all forms of assistance. The fear of adverse publicity has put them on the defensive and information that is seemingly in the public domain has also been denied. In any case, our experience in gathering data on the operation of the NDPS Act in Punjab is reflective of several problems with clarity, maintenance and accessibility of data relevant to any research. It is no surprise that the quality of academic research, policy making and law reform contingent upon data of this kind remains woefully poor.  

Sakshi is a research fellow at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, New Delhi.