The Punjab government’s decision to recommend to the Centre death penalty for drug peddlers and smugglers is a reaction to the growing public anger over increasing deaths due to drugs-related causes in recent days.
In the last month alone, the state has seen 23 deaths from narcotics-related causes and the Amarinder Singh government, which had promised an all-out assault on the drugs menace in the run-up to the assembly elections last year, was being blamed for doing nothing to stem the rot.
Existing laws already allow for courts to hand out a death sentence to drug smugglers if they are convicted of a second offence. But the cold reality is that cases against culprits rarely reach the conviction stage.
The proof of the pudding will lie in its eating but considering that the drug menace thrives in part because of political and police networks, the government will have to do much more to dismantle these if it actually wants to make a difference. This would require taking vested interests in the trade head-on.
The real sincerity of the Amarinder government’s intentions would hinge on whether it cracks down on drug lords who call the shots in the drugs business rather than petty traders who are a small link in the chain.
The public exasperation has been fuelled by recent videos---one showing a young man dying of an overdose and another depicting a couple begging for help for their addict son--- which have gone viral.
A recent government study suggests that over 860,000 young men in the state, between the age of 15-35, take some form of drugs. Deadly heroin is the most preferred, used by 53 per cent of all addicts. But opium and synthetic drugs such as crystal methamphetamine are also common.
Especially in the villages bordering Pakistan, young men can be found huddled together in cemeteries, abandoned buildings or plain fields, smoking, snorting or shooting up. Considering that a high proportion of youth in border villages used to go for army recruitment earlier but now the percentage has dropped drastically makes one wonder whether drug syndicates across the border are acting in connivance with the Pakistan establishment, especially the army, in corrupting these youth.
The governments at the Centre and in Punjab needed to act much earlier to stem this insidious smuggling of drugs from Afghanistan through Pakistan but the erstwhile Akali-BJP government paid mere lip service to controlling the menace while smuggling thrived.
There was widespread hope that the Congress would do better but the Amarinder government too has shown lacklustre results so far, suggesting a deep-rooted nexus.
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If the Centre accepts the death penalty recommendation, the ball would be in the Punjab government’s court and it would be interesting to see whether it proves true to its word.
While deterrent punishment would play its part, other measures would be needed side by side. Drug consumption in Punjab is three times the national average.
Agriculture, which brought the state its wealth, is stagnating and with little industrialisation there is high unemployment. Education is at a low ebb and ignorance is all-pervasive.
These root causes need to be addressed if Punjab is to come out of the morass.
The security forces will need to be duly equipped to address the porosity of the border and justice would have to be speedy and efficient. A close watch will need to be kept on drug carriers and smugglers, both from across the border and within.
These are challenges that can be squarely met provided there is a strong political will which the Congress government will need to display. It is only public pressure that can force the government to act and nullify the sinister games of vested interests that are playing with the present and the future of Punjab society.
This is a challenge that the Congress government can ill afford to lose.