Breaking out of
Amritsar is known for all the wrong reasons. Drug addicts,
deaths related to drugs, widows and orphans of drug addicts and
poverty caused by most employable males getting hooked to drugs.
In this bleak scenario, where addiction has assumed epidemic
proportions and has claimed hundreds of lives, a few bravehearts
have come forward to educate children and save them from this
fatal attraction, reports A. J. Philip
is a misnomer. An emaciated little girl, whose frail frame
betrays her poverty, she is named after Lakshmi, the goddess of
wealth. When I am told she survives on one roti a day, I do not
have to look for evidence. Her raised collarbones and protruding
ribs eloquently tell her story of deprivation, bordering on
Lakshmi has three
siblings. The responsibility of bringing them up has always been
that of their mother, who does odd jobs to keep the hearth
burning occasionally. She does not know when her father was
jailed and why. But she knows very well why she and her family
have to suffer. Her father is a drug addict.
This is no big
news in Maqboolpura, barely two km from Amritsar bus stand. An
area where victims of the Partition settled down in the late
1940s, it is today notorious as the locality of widows. Every
family here has a story to narrate. How a handsome youth, who
was the darling of his mother, fell into the trap of drugs from
where he could never get out. How a father of four died of drugs
even before he turned 30.
My first encounter
in Maqboolpura was with Harbans Kaur. She was skeletal,
bed-ridden and spent her life in the open on a broken, dirty
bed. She could not talk, let alone sit properly. She looked 90
when she was around 60.
Harbans lost her
husband and two sons to drugs. The third son, Kala Singh, now
takes care of her. Unfortunately for Harbans, most of the time,
Kala Singh himself needs care, as he is a drug addict.
Consumption of drugs has reduced Kala Singh to such a state of
health that he can no longer pull a rickshaw.
IN THE SERVICE OF DRUG VICTIMS: Masterji with his wife and son
— Photo by Rajiv Sharma
It was pointless
to ask Kala Singh any questions as he appeared to be in a daze.
Kala Singhs are aplenty in Maqboolpura, which derives its name
from Chaudhary Maqbool, a Muslim gentleman who lived here before
the Partition. Most of the people here originally came from
Sargodha, Lyallpur and Multan, which are now in Pakistan.
Most residents of
Maqboolpura belong to the Scheduled Caste. Around Amritsar city,
there are numerous fruit gardens where some of them work as
watchmen. These gardens have plenty of hemp plants. People scrub
the plant leaves on their palms to prepare charas. Some
rich peasants also encourage them to prepare country-made
liquor. The migrants took to this kind of job like duck to
Not very far from
here is a religious centre where liquor is distributed as prasad.
All this has made Maqboolpura a haven for smugglers and
consumers of drugs. Proximity to the border also provides
greater access to all kinds of narcotic substances that Pakistan
has been surreptitiously exporting to India.
pricked the conscience of the region when Varinder Walia
reported in The Tribune in 1999 about the death of 30
householders in three years and called it the "locality of
widows". He has done countless stories from Amritsar but
this is one story, which he is proud of. Unlike many other
journalists who claim to have done "investigative
stories", he is frank enough to give credit to then
district police chief Gurdev Singh Sahota, who tipped him off
about the reign of death in Maqboolpura.
methods alone could not tackle the problem. I was more worried
about the children, who had been pulled out of schools after
their fathers died. I wanted to ensure a good future for the
children," said Sahota who is now a DIG. Maqboolpura is no
longer in his charge but he never misses an opportunity to do
whatever he can to mitigate the sufferings of the people.
newspaper reports are quickly read and easily forgotten, The
Tribune report made an impact on Master Ajit Singh, who
lives in a two-storeyed house in a congested locality, which has
a population of 20,000 with little access to modern comforts of
life. Unlike most men who had fallen prey to liquor and other
addictive substances, he had abhorrence for all intoxicants.
LIFE’S A STRUGGLE FOR HER: Sixty-year-old Harbans Kaur, who looks 90, has lost her husband and sons to drugs
— Photo by Rajiv Sharma
Ajit Singh had
taken the initiative to start a "nasha virodhi
squad" to save people from addiction. Little did he
know that he was battling against forces so well entrenched that
he found himself to be a David against a Goliath. But he did not
Masterji, as he is
known, wanted to do something concrete for the locality.
"Deaths were occurring all around. Children were turning
orphans. If they too had followed in the footsteps of their
parents, there would have been no redemption for
Maqboolpura," Masterji waxes eloquent.
The day The
Tribune report appeared, it moved an affluent person who
lives in another area of the city founded by Guru Ram Dass and
developed by Guru Arjan Singh. He is Brij Bedi, an
industrialist. He rushed to Maqboolpura where he met up with
"It is almost
impossible to transform drug addicts. For every one attempt to
wean them away from drugs, there are a dozen attempts to keep
them on the hook. Tell me, what de-addiction is possible to
someone who gets a kick from samosas stuffed with lizards? I was
more worried about saving the children. I told Masterji to
gather 20 children so that we could educate them", recalls
Masterji was only
too happy to collaborate. Finding a place in the locality to
teach the children was like finding a needle in a haystack. It
was then that he offered to teach the children at his own home.
His wife Satpaul Kaur, who teaches in a government school, was
so accommodating that she readily agreed to bear the additional
burden of looking after the children and taking classes too. The
family virtually shifted to their master bedroom while the rest
of the house was converted into a school.
The school was
named Citizen Forum Vidya Mandir. Today it has 425 students on
its rolls. It has not been a bed of roses for Brij Bedi and
Masterji. They had to struggle to keep the school running. As
more and more students enrolled, space became a major
constraint. But constructing a new building was easier said than
A turning point in
the school’s growth was the Harmony Award it received from the
Dalai Lama in 2003. It was a proud moment for Masterji to
receive the award at an impressive function in New Delhi. The
award had a cash component of Rs 1 lakh. It did not come alone.
An anonymous businessman from Bangalore sent a demand draft for
Rs 1 lakh. With this money in hand, they looked for a suitable
plot in the locality to construct a school building.
They finally found
an affordable plot at a stone’s throw from Masterji’s house.
A two-storeyed building was constructed with just enough space
for holding school assembly in a covered courtyard. A visit to
the school by the first lady IPS officer of the country, Kiran
Bedi, was yet another milestone in the school’s growth.
She wrote in the
school diary, "It is a most unique and inspiring work at
hand which involves total dedication and commitment." Not
just that, she also extended financial help of Rs 6000 per month
through Navjyoti Foundation, a civil society organisation she
runs from New Delhi.
such assistance may be, it is just a drop in the ocean of need.
Then how does the school run? Voluntary services of Masterji and
his sons Harbanpreet Singh and Amanpreet Singh, who are students
of Springdale School here, play an important role. Only full-
time teachers are paid a nominal salary. Senior students have
been trained to take classes at the lower level.
Parveen Kaur, is a young girl from the locality. A graduate, her
efficiency belies her age. Another teacher is doing her MA in
Hindi. They all see the job as an opportunity to serve the
children of their own locality. Even mothers of students come
forward to provide voluntary work.
Paramjit Kaur is
one among them. She has a huge burn mark on her neck to show me.
That is a gift she got from her "loving"
mother-in-law. Her husband died a few years ago and the onus of
looking after her children has fallen on her.
Master Judge is a
student who enjoys every minute of his stay in the school. He
has only a hazy memory of his father, who fell victim to drug
addiction. He is being brought up by his mother and his ambition
is to become a police officer. Why? "I want to finish the
drug problem in the locality. I do not want any child to suffer
like me." His face shines as he speaks.
children were asked to write an essay on any subject of their
choice. An overwhelming majority of them wrote on the subject of
drug addiction. "There was no prompting from the school on
what they should write. The subject is deeply ingrained in their
minds. Drug addiction is what rattles them all the time,"
says the principal.
The students of
Miri Piri who are Americans converted to Sikhism visit the
school periodically. They never come empty-handed. They bring
clothes and books for the children. The mother of one such
student has started a project named ‘Gabriel’ in Germany to
collect money for the school.
is not replicated in the desired manner in the area. Sardar
Didar Singh was on a visit to the school when I went there. An
NRI settled in London, he had come to the city to take hold of
his property which some of his relatives have been occupying for
the last 40 years. His predicament is that he has to stay in a
hotel when his relatives are staying comfortably in his house.
"I would gladly give away the property to the school if I
am able to get it vacated," he says enthusiastically.
During the recent
elections, BJP candidate Navjot Singh Sidhu visited Maqboolpura.
When he was told about the needs of the school, he announced a
grant of Rs 3 lakh from the MP Local Area Development scheme.
However, when he stepped into the school and found that the
children had access to modern computers, he was so impressed
that he immediately increased the grant to Rs 5 lakh.
"It is a
Herculean task to get the money from the Government because of a
lot of procedural formalities and red tape," said Brij
Bedi. Although Masterji takes care to provide some food to the
starving children, lack of a proper mid-day meal scheme is one
of the drawbacks of the school. It was easier for me to advise
the Forum to provide a mid-day meal to the children than to help
it fulfil the desire.
disconcerting that many children remain hungry when not very far
from their schools thousands of people are sumptuously fed
everyday in the Golden Temple. The school has come a long way
since it began with just 20 students in 1999 but it has still to
go a long way. It needs institutional support so that it can
employ qualified teachers and assure one nutritious meal to the
children a day. Is anyone hearing?