Srinagar: For 23-year-old Saba (name changed), the past three years have been a roller coaster of drugs and detoxification. Her bruised and scarred limbs make it difficult for her to walk and clearly display her battle with addiction. The blue and purple spots around her veins are a result of the years of intravenous heroin abuse.
Saba’s addiction to heroin began when, at the age of 20, she decided to train as a paramedic. The college in Punjab in which she enrolled turned out to be a scam and she soon realised that her parents had been duped of the Rs 1 lakh they had paid in donations and fees. The need for money pushed her into trying to find a part-time job. A hostel mate ‘showed’ her some ‘opportunities’ to help her earn a living, and later introduced her to people who could help her earn ‘even better with a little courier job’.
At first, Saba had no idea that the consignments she delivered at various locations consisted of heroin. When she found out, she began snorting small amounts of the drug, having been told by her colleagues that it would make her feel fearless. Soon, the snorting changed into injections of heroin. Now Saba began spending all the money she earned as a heroin trafficker on the consumption of the narcotic.
Her family had expected that the diploma Saba would earn from college, and the job this diploma would get her, would help them repay the loan of Rs 1 lakh they had taken to send her to college in the first place. But those hopes have been shattered. Worse, as Saba continued to abuse heroin, she begged them for more money on one pretext or the other, pushing the family deeper into debt. Now Saba is done with the responsibility and guilt she once felt for putting her family into this situation.
“Mostly, I feel like ending my life and putting a stop to the embarrassment that my parents feel when they look at me,” she said at Drug De-Addiction and Treatment Centre (DDTC) at Srinagar’s Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS) Hospital. She visits the hospital every week with her mother for opioid substitution therapy (OST). According to the psycho-social counsellor who treats Saba, she has relapsed twice.
The easy way out
As Saba waited for her turn for the OST, a 14-year-old girl, frail and tired-looking, was helped out of the room by her mother. The Class 8 student is a heroin abuser and no longer attends school. Dr Yasir Hussain Rather, the doctor in charge of the DDTC at SMHS Hospital and a treating doctor for the 14-year-old, said the girl has been ‘chasing’ heroin for three months.
“Bullying at a new school, an older group of friends, easy access to money, and an over-controlling family: that’s her story,” Dr Rather said.
Chasing or snorting is usually the user’s first introduction to heroin, according to many youngsters admitted for the addiction treatment.
“Most start with a Rs 10 currency note that is rolled to form a straw, through which they snort the drug. For those who want to ‘Chase the Dragon’, the powder is wrapped in the foil wrapper of a particular brand of chocolate, then heated over a flame. The fumes it emits are then inhaled,” said Gulshan (name changed), a teenager admitted for addiction treatment.
Gulshan was introduced to the dark world of heroin by her boyfriend. She is relentless and remorseless, her mother complained to a therapist. “I lock her up in house while I go out to work as a housekeeper in many households. But she finds a way to get an injection,” the mother lamented.
Dr Rather said it scares him to see girls and boys in their early teens indulge in heroin abuse. He blames the easy availability of heroin for the abuse that is becoming so common in Kashmir.
“Of course, there are other factors, such as mental health, lack of avenues for entertainment, and sometimes financial hardships that push people into drugs. But I would say that these problems exist everywhere. In Kashmir, it is the easy access to drugs of all kinds that is pushing these young people down this abyss,” he said.
Heroin in the open
According to a study on drug abuse in the country carried out by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment in 2019, the level of opioid abuse in Jammu and Kashmir is among the highest in the country. The report titled ‘Magnitude of Substance Abuse in India’ said that 4.9% of the six lakh individuals in J&K abuse opium derivatives including “doda, phukki, poppy husk, heroin, brown sugar, smack and pharmaceutical opioids”.
Over the past few years, this number has been increasing. According to the official data of the Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (IMHANS), the registration of people in Jammu and Kashmir seeking treatment for substance addiction has multiplied many times. IMHANS’s data comes from its DDTC at SMHS Hospital and the 200-bed hospital it runs in Rainawari, Srinagar. In 2018, 2,000 people had registered for treatment of substance abuse. The number reached 3,852 in 2019. In 2020, 6,200 people sought treatment despite the COVID-19 lockdown. In 2021, it appeared that the lockdown had made matters worse and 13,200 registrations were made. More than 90% of these people seeking treatment are abusing heroin, the IMHANS data for J&K shows.
As the absolute numbers grow, the number of women at risk and already into addiction has also been rising.
“In less than half a year, we have already seen and registered 48 women for de-addiction. The substance of abuse is heroin in a vast majority of these cases,” Dr Rather said.
According to figures maintained by the De-Addiction Centre in Srinagar, 41 women had registered in 2021. In 2020, possibly because of the lockdown and the suspension of routine healthcare, the number was just 10. The two years prior to that saw around 30 female patients registering for de-addiction each year.
Professor Arshid Hussain, who works with the Department of Psychiatry at the Government Medical College, Srinagar, believes that the chances of women seeking treatment for substance abuse are ‘far less than those of a male counterpart’.
“The taboo is so serious, the stigmatisation is so far-reaching that the person would prefer continued suffering to coming forward to seek help,” he said.
‘The tail of the monster’
Over the past year, the J&K police have arrested scores of women trafficking drugs, mostly ‘brown sugar’, poppy straw, cannabis, and sometimes huge consignments of heroin. In June this year, a woman and two accomplices were arrested in Kupwara district with seven kilograms of narcotics believed to be heroin. In July, according to the J&K police, a woman was arrested from Kathua with 8.5 grams of heroin. Similar arrests were made earlier.
Incidents in which women are found involved in the drug trafficking network have been on a significant rise across J&K recently, said Vinay Kumar, Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) in the Anti-Narcotics Task Force (ANTF). “Peddling by females, however, is an urban issue entirely and quite rampant in Srinagar and Jammu cities,” he said.
Kumar said the number of women arrested for narcotics-related offenses was just “the tail of the monster”. He believes that women are preferred for trafficking drugs between the cities and states and even for peddling now because they manage to stay below the police radar.
“When we see a female or a family in a car at a naka (crossing), we usually let the car pass without checking and frisking to avoid harassment and due to the non-availability of female cops at every checkpoint,” he explained.
Yet, with the growing list of female offenders involved in serious crimes, including alleged cross Line of Control trafficking, the police are strengthening their intelligence and networks to include the suspicion of women, said Kumar.
Kumar, however, believes that demand reduction needs to be urgently addressed. “We need to address female substance abuse as a disease, not a crime. We must optimise the facilities for discreet, private, and confidential treatment,” he said, adding that it was also equally important to “crackdown” on peddling and trafficking by women. “We have had some success in this area and more is expected,” he said.
J&K formulated its first drug de-addiction policy in 2018, aiming to integrate de-addiction with healthcare systems in order to mainstream and destigmatise it. The policy enlisted 14 governmental departments to work on various aspects of substance abuse. Addiction treatment facilities are being set up in various districts with assistance from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, but are yet to fully take off.
In 2019, the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) in its annual report highlighted J&K as being among the states with a high influx and availability of narcotics. The report that captured data for the previous year said that J&K stood at number three vis-à-vis the seizure of heroin.
“Major trafficking of heroin in the country takes place through the Indo-Pakistan border mainly in the states of Punjab and Jammu & Kashmir. From these states heroin is smuggled into other states,” the report said. The report said that 33,134 kg of hashish had been seized the previous year and that poppy had been grown and was subsequently destroyed on 358 acres of land in J&K, the fifth highest area with poppy crop in any state in the country.
Since 2019, there has been no country-wide estimate of narcotics abuse prevalence. In response to a question asked in the Lok Sabha this February by Pradyut Bordoloi, member of parliament from Assam, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) replied that the monthly Drug Situation Report had been uploaded on NCB website till March 2019, but then had been discontinued the same year “as the data is being captured in the annual report”.
Since the annual reports for 2019 and 2020 had not been uploaded on the website since then, the MHA had said that they would be “published in the first quarter of 2022”. However, the reports are not yet available on the NCB website.
According to the data that is available on the NCB website, in 2021, 849.48 kg (details unspecified), 26,932 bottles and 40,148 capsules of narcotics were destroyed in J&K. At the same time, the neighbouring states of Himachal Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana had 21.7 kg, 800.7 kg and 25.9 kg of narcotics destroyed, respectively.
Last month, the J&K ANTF claimed the recovery of 600 kg of poppy straw “on its way from Kashmir valley to Punjab”.