A STARK message blares from a flex banner at the entrance of Dhilwan Khurd village in Faridkot, delivering a warning that cannot be ignored: “Laggi je tere kaalje haje chhuri nahin, eh naa samjhin ke tere shehar di haalat buri nahin.” Translated, it conveys a chilling message: “Don’t be deceived by peace in your home or city if you haven’t been stabbed yet.” This ominous couplet is displayed next to the photo of Harbhagwan Singh, a member of the Nasha Roko Committee. Tragically, he fell victim to drug smugglers just four days after the committee’s formation on August 4. The audacity of his murder was shocking.
Harbhagwan, along with other committee members and the village panchayat, had sought a commitment from Avtar Singh Taari, a fellow villager, to halt his drug-related activities. During a panchayat meeting, Taari’s alleged accomplice came and fatally shot Harbhagwan.
This incident was a bitter irony in a village known for its tradition of collectively addressing problems, even individual ones. Five years back, the villagers had raised Rs 80,000 for Taari’s leg surgery. A kabaddi player then, he had become immobile due to an injury.
Harbhagwan, who leaves behind an 11-year-old daughter and an eight-year-old son, worked as an outsourced lineman for the Punjab State Power Corporation Limited. His home depicts a grim picture of poverty, with mud-lined brick walls, curtain-covered washrooms, and a mud floor mixed with cow dung and wheat straw.
Kuldeep Singh, a committee member, expressed their determination to combat drug abuse. “We couldn’t rely solely on the government. To eradicate a social evil, people must launch a social movement,” he emphasised. “For too long, we ignored drug smugglers, but when even children under 15 started getting addicted to drugs, we knew we had to act.”
On August 1, they formed the committee and reported Taari and his associates involved in drug trafficking to the police. Regrettably, their pleas were ignored.
Bodh Singh, Harbhagwan’s cousin and the complainant in the murder case, remarked, “People often only act when their family or someone in their close circle is directly affected. Until then, it’s someone else’s problem or the government’s concern.”
Bodh Singh said when they gathered at Taari’s house, pleading for him to stop his drug dealings, he gave assurances but remained indifferent. “On the fateful day, we caught two addicts emerging from Taari’s house, clearly in a drug-induced stupor. We called Taari to the panchayat, and that’s when the fatal incident unfolded.”
Later, the police arrested Taari and the shooter, Amandeep Ghopa, along with their spouses and Taari’s 16-year-old son.
The concerns of the Nasha Roko Committee are not baseless. Punjab has seen a record heroin seizure this year. Nearly 950 kg has been recovered till September 15, surpassing the previous high of 759.82 kg in 2020. The expansion of the heroin trade can be gauged from the police data. In 2002, only 2.32 kg of heroin was recovered. In 2007, it increased to 134.93 kg and in 2012, the figure touched 301.39 kg. In 2022, 593.68 kg was seized.
Security agencies privately admit that the recoveries constitute only a small fraction of the total drug influx. The grim reality is that Punjab has an estimated four to five lakh heroin addicts, with daily consumption rates suggesting that the annual recovery is depleted in just a few days.
Health Minister Dr Balbir Singh stated in March that there were 10 lakh addicts in the state, based on the number of enrolments in government and private de-addiction centres. Half of them were addicted to heroin or chitta. Three years ago, in 2020, the Congress government reported four lakh heroin addicts. Despite the substantial heroin recoveries, it is believed that only 10 per cent of smuggled drugs are intercepted.
The surge in drug trafficking can be attributed to several factors, including the Taliban’s control of opium fields in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s encouragement of smuggling, and the collapse of Pakistan’s economy. One Indian rupee equals 3.62 Pakistani rupees, increasing the purchasing power of smugglers. The patience of the common man has worn thin after multiple governments have failed to curb drug smuggling in the past 15 years. Nasha Roko Committees have emerged across the state, leading to clashes between vigilantes and smugglers.
Inform the police, avoid direct conflict
It is heartening that people have taken up cudgels against the drug menace. The police have always encouraged participation in checking crime. We have co-opted the VDCs in the fight against drugs. But no one can take the law into their hands. The VDCs are not supposed to enter into direct conflict with criminals or smugglers. They need to inform the police. -- Gaurav Yadav, Punjab Police Chief
In Mozam Base and Mozam Forward villages situated close to the International Border with Pakistan in Fazilka, the Border Security Force, the police and the intelligence agencies are motivating people to red-flag smugglers or peddlers. Officials are rejuvenating the Village Defence Committees (VDCs) to keep an eye on the smugglers too. “These committees exist as a civilian arm for defence at the border. The members inform security agencies of any abnormal activity that can compromise the security of the country. Now, we are sensitising them to the menace of drugs,” says an offical.
The VDCs are being told to report any stranger in the area (like a peddler who has come to collect contraband packets being delivered from across the border). They are also trained to spot a drone and know what to do if they see a dropped packet.
PEDDLERS ON EITHER SIDE OF BORDER
- For most of the peddlers on either side of the border, smuggling is a way of life. Two Pakistani smugglers, Mohd Amzad and Mohd Siwana, caught by the State Special Operation Cell (SSOC) after they brought 29 kg of chitta across the Sutlej, said their mud houses were damaged in the floods. When some persons offered Rs 3 lakh (Pakistani currency) each, they agreed to take the risk. Both have paid a heavy price. Both face decades in Indian jails. Siwana has also lost an arm, which had to be amputated after infection following a gunshot injury.
- An Indian peddler, Veer Singh, in and out of jail many times, told agencies he has no other source of income. Veer has gained such expertise in crossing the riverine areas that he charged a whopping Rs 1 crore for smuggling 77 kg of heroin. The SSOC caught him.
— Inputs from Balwant Garg and Praful Chander Nagpal
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