Tuesday, Dec 26, 2023

In Punjab’s war on drugs, end users are easy target as big fish remain elusive

Burnt matchsticks, lighters among evidence, significant number of arrests related to minor drug seizures

Punjab drugsThe NDPS Act defines 5 grams of heroin as small quantity and 250 grams as commercial quantity. (Representational Photo/AP)
  • In September last year, a police team from Satnampura police station in Punjab’s Kapurthala district conducted a raid at Sagar Sandhu’s residence following a tip-off. They allegedly found him in possession of a rolled-up Rs 10 note, a lighter, and foil paper, and arrested him under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act.
  • On January 2 this year, the Amritsar police spotted a Chevrolet Beat parked near Esma Estate. According to the FIR, the patrolling party observed a man in the driver’s seat using a silver foil paper to inhale a substance, while another in the passenger seat lit something with a lighter. The police promptly arrested the two men, Kanwaljit Singh and Jung Bahadur, under the NDPS Act. Their recovery included a lighter, silver foil, and a Rs 10 note.
  • On January 6, the Sultanwind police station in Amritsar registered an NDPS case against Sarabjit Singh for allegedly “smoking an intoxicant” behind bushes near Dera Baba Gulab Das. The evidence was burnt matchsticks, a matchbox, and silver paper.

These incidents are just a handful among several cases in which the police in Punjab have booked individuals for “smoking heroin” based solely on observation.

A close examination of 11,156 FIRs filed by the Punjab police under the NDPS Act between April 1, 2022 and February 28, 2023 – the period for which the state police presented a summary of their anti-drug efforts to the Assembly – reveals a significant number of arrests related to minor drug seizures, raising concerns that the focus is on end users or users-turned-peddlers rather than major drug trade operators.

These findings are part of an investigation by The Indian Express, which also threw light on other trends – from an uptick in the number of women booked in NDPS cases to identical phrases being used in a bulk of drug-related FIRs.


Out of the 11,156 FIRs, 2,804 cases involved minor seizures compared to 275 major ones. Additionally, there were 2,746 cases related to prohibited or “nasheeli” tablets.

Director General of Police Gaurav Yadav, however, says this trend is changing. “We have seized over one tonne of heroin till September this year, which is unprecedented in the state’s history. And we have caught many big fish this year.”

Festive offer

Explaining the overwhelming number of small seizures, Yadav says, “All along, the thinking was that we should take action against anyone selling even small quantities to curb this menace, but after CM Bhagwant Mann’s Independence Day speech in which he promised to rid the state of drugs by next year, we had a brainstorming session in August where we decided we must net the big fish and keep them in jail.’’

The NDPS Act defines 5 grams of heroin as small quantity and 250 grams as commercial quantity. For ganja, 1 kg is small quantity, and 20 kg is commercial quantity. Anything between this range is called “lesser than commercial quantity but greater than small quantity” in legal parlance or “intermediate” quantity informally. The gravity of offences and sentences vary depending on the quantity.


But even for a minor seizure, including that of a lighter and matchsticks, the accused often remain in jail for at least a month or two until being bailed out.

The human cost

The quantities may be small, but visits to village after village revealed the fallout on the accused and their families.

Last July, two friends from Tarn Taran district, aged 30 and 40, were held for possessing 10 grams of heroin. A narrow lane takes you to the rickety house of the latter. The wooden door that seems as old as the village itself doesn’t have a proper latch. Inside, his son, a student of Class IX, says his father has gone out for work. Across the house, a neighbour tells you how he is an addict. The man’s wife makes ends meet by working as a maid, while “their two daughters study and then help out the mother”. His son says, “Papa nasha karde ne par bechde nahin (He consumes drugs but does not sell them).”


It was in June 2022 that the police picked up the man and his friend, who lives down the street in a larger house.

The younger man’s mother recounts how her only son is wasting his life on drugs: “Now we have to fend for his wife and two children, a son who is in Class VII and a daughter who is in Class V.”

Close to the Indo-Pak border, some villages are now seeing drugs literally drop from the sky. Last month, a drone, ostensibly from Pakistan, landed near a drain not far from Kalsian village in Tarn Taran. Inderjit Singh, 24, was the first to learn about it when the police knocked at his farmhouse around 1.30 that night. The wiry young man, who lives in the middle of the fields with his widowed mother and two dogs, was also booked under the NDPS Act last year for allegedly possessing 20 grams of heroin.

“I confess I was an addict; I used to inject myself but I am clean now. Then last year, cops landed here and took me away. I had no intoxicant on me, but they booked me for possessing 20 grams of heroin. I spent two months in jail,” he claims.

That was not the end of his troubles. Inderjit claims the police began to badger him to give up names of suppliers. “Finally, I told them about a man supplying illegal weapons from UP. Next thing I know, a team of the Delhi Police Special Cell whisked me away from Amritsar. They did not arrest me, but booked me under the Arms Act. They alleged I had 10 weapons on me, that I am an international smuggler and a member of the Jaggu Bhagwanpuria gang,” he claims.


His mother Sukhjinder Kaur, 50, who used to work in an old age home, is in tears as she tells you how their life changed since the NDPS case. As for Inderjit, he just wrings his hands: “My girlfriend is trying to clear IELTS. We had plans to migrate, but after these cases, my life has hit a dead end. What do I do now?”

A Delhi Special Cell officer said Inderjit was picked up after a gun smuggler from UP mentioned his name as a recipient.


Khalra SHO Balwinder Singh said they are just doing their job. “We don’t frame people, we keep a close watch on all those who have NDPS cases against them to ensure they don’t slide back as this is a border area. And whenever there is some drone drop, we check in on them.”

Prevention better than cure

While the quantum of seizures can be a subject of debate, Dr Sandeep Bhola, who has been running a drug de-addiction centre in Kapurthala for over a decade, says, “The police, instead of arresting drug users, should take them to rehab. That’s the only way out of this vicious circle.’’


In fact, speaking in the Assembly in March this year, state health minister Dr Balbir Singh had created a flutter when he said that Punjab had around one million drug users. “There are 2.62 lakh in government-run centres and 6.12 lakh in private centres, but in my opinion, the number is much higher,’’ he had said. Incidentally, the state with such a large population of drug users has only 36 government de-addiction centres.

Dr Pramod Kumar of the Institute for Development Communication, which has written several papers on the subject, says that traditionally, the state has followed the EDP (enforcement, deaddiction, and prevention) model in their war on drugs instead of putting prevention first.

Punjab’s former DGP (Prisons) Shashikant, a retired IPS officer, says it’s unfortunate that progress in any field is measured by the numbers of arrests. “The focus should be on rehabilitation of the accused so they do not get back into the same rut again. I would dare say that many of these cases are fake. Why I say so is because in numerous cases, it is seen that personal rivalries result in people getting booked under the NDPS Act. Many times, influential people get rivals booked to grab their properties. A lot of politically motivated cases are also filed under the NDPS Act.”

Balbir Singh, the 43-year-old sarpanch of Latiawal village in Sultanpur Lodhi and a member of the Congress party, claims to be a victim of such a rivalry. Balbir says he was “falsely implicated” in an NDPS case in June 2022 along with 10 others when some addicts told the police he was their supplier. Balbir, who runs a well-stocked grocery shop from his house and does farming on the side, admits some people in the village have taken to intoxicants, but denies his role. “It’s politics. I was booked under NDPS when the Akali Dal was in power only to be acquitted later,” says Balbir, who approached the Punjab and Haryana High Court.

First published on: 24-12-2023 at 04:04 IST
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