Saturday, April 28, 2007

Breaking out of

Maqboolpura in 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

HERS 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 destitution.

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
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 water.

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.

Maqboolpura first 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.

"Police 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.

While most 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
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 give up.

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 Ajit Singh.

"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 Bedi.

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 done.

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.

However welcome 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.

The principal, 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.

Recently the 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.

Such munificence 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.

It is 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?