Across Kashmir, tens of thousands of young men and women who have failed to cope with the cumulative effects of trauma in their daily lives are escaping to drug abuse and alcoholism. The student community that has come about amid the continuing socio-political disturbance and violence in Kashmir is the worst hit. De-addiction counsellors estimate that 40 percent of school and college students in the Valley have taken to drug abuse as a way to cope with distress. UNTIL RECENTLY, Akhtar, 29, a resident of Srinagar, the capital of Jammu and Kashmir, could not start his day until he popped eight tablets of Spasmo Proxyvon, a painkiller, into his empty stomach before hitting the road with his auto-rickshaw.
Like him, Bashir, 54, a businessman in the saffron-rich town of Pampore outside Srinagar, would not eat for as long as six days in a row. Till he enrolled himself in a rehabilitation programme recently, Bashir would down half-a-litre of whisky every morning. A widow in the south Kashmir town of Pulwama still gives her teenage son money every day to buy cannabis, fearing he might otherwise become a militant.
The three drug abusers (names changed) reveal the tip of an iceberg. Two decades of conflict have ravaged the Kashmir valley, taking a huge toll on the mental health of its people. Indeed, the increasing consumption of medicinal opiates in Kashmir is emerging as a worrying trend. As more and more land comes under the cultivation of poppy and cannabis every year, a burgeoning number of people are falling to drug abuse in myriad ways. “There could be at least 60,000 substance abusers (drug addicts) in Srinagar alone,” says Saiba Verma, a doctoral student from Cornell University in the US researching the emerging scenario in Kashmir. The population of Srinagar is about 14 lakh. Drug abuse is evenly spreading across the rural and urban areas in the Valley.
Predictably, the government, as well as society, brush the catastrophe under the carpet. No comprehensive survey has been undertaken to deal with it. Most doctors and psychiatrists say 70 to 80 percent of the addicts who report for help use easily available prescription drugs and substances like alcoholbased cough syrup, painkillers, eraser fluid, nail polish and even shoe polish. The rest are alcoholics or use locallygrown cannabis mixed with tobacco.
“We are about to lose an entire generation to drug abuse,” says Dr Muzaffar Khan, a psychiatrist who operates a de-addiction centre run by the state police inside the premises of its control room in Srinagar. “The socio-political disturbance is the main reason that has made the youth most vulnerable.” Most addicts are in the 18 to 35 age group.
Driving an auto-rickshaw, Akhtar would often find himself caught in traumatic situations ranging from harsh cordon and search operations by Indian security forces to grenade attacks by militants. By 1998, he was suffering from continual headaches and was increasingly taking painkillers.
“Then another driver suggested I take something stronger,” he says. “I started taking a pill strong enough.” Akhtar did not know he had become an addict till he found himself “misbehaving” with his family. And he would not eat.
The state health department has virtually no de-addiction and rehabilitation services. In distress, Akhtar started looking for help and found Raahat, a 12-bed de-addiction centre run by an NGO, All J&K Youth Welfare. “On the very first day they chained me up as if I was a prisoner,” Akhtar says. Akhtar somehow fled Raahat, but volunteers from the centre came with the police and dragged him back. He left Raahat 40 days later, after spending Rs 30,000. Akhtar took to drugs again.
Ironically, the NGO is not even aware of the basic rules running a rehabilitation centre. “We have to be very strict with the addicts,” its general secretary, S Shabir, told TEHELKA. “Patients in psychiatric condition sometimes need to be tied to chains with the consent of a relative. Sometimes we do ask for the police to come with us to handle an unwilling patient.” Raahat has only a part-time technical staff of five: two doctors and nurses each, and one counsellor.
AKHTAR IS now recovering in the police de-addiction centre, which the police opened in 2008 from their welfare fund. So far it has counselled more the 3,500 addicts and treated 185 from across Kashmir. But there are thousands like Akhtar who do not have anywhere to go for help.
People with drug dependency problems dread going to the only and extremely overburdened psychiatric hospital in Srinagar. “They lodge us with mentally deranged and mad people there,” says a patient at the police deaddiction centre. The only other de-addiction centre is a two-bed facility inte – grated in the district hospital at Baramulla in north Kashmir.
Dr Marghoob, a leading psychiatrist, says counselling and rehabilitation clinics are needed in every nook and corner of Kashmir. According to him, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the main reason driving people to drugs.
“I have seen many patients who have not been able to sleep because of trauma and they resort to easily available drugs in the market and then become dependent on them,” says Marghoob. This is a dominant pattern with people across socio-economic classes who have seen violent deaths from close or lost family members to the armed conflict.
Medicinal opiates like codeine, Corex and Rexcof and prescription drugs like Alprax and Spasmo Proxyvon are available across the counter in medical shops that have mushroomed over 15 years. Despite being banned elsewhere in the country, variants of these drugs are sold in “huge quantities” in Kashmir.
“The young prefer these drugs because they don’t smell like charas or opium do,” says Yasir Zehgir, a volunteer with the police de-addiction centre who took up this work after his friend became an addict.
But prescription drugs are not the only worry. Poppy and cannabis cultivation has been steadily growing since the mid-1990s, after the law enforcement agencies completely withdrew because of the militancy. But the trend continued even after the militancy waned in 2004. Experts say that large-scale unemployment and poverty contributed to the growth in the cultivation of these lucrative crops in the south Kashmir belt from Pulwama to Anantnag.
Between 1995 and 2000, the area witnessed alternating floods and drought making normal agriculture almost impossible in vast and inaccessible areas. In the absence of government help, farmers switched to cannabis, further spreading its abuse. “People took to charas after their crops failed every year after 1995,” said Fayaz Ahmed, a lawyer who helps addicts in police cases against them.
The police have now launched a poppy destruction drive which has been successful in Pulwama, where this year land under its cultivation has been brought down to less than 25 acres compared to 750 in 2009. But in the adjacent districts of Shopian and Anantnag, cannabis cultivation remains unabated.
Jammu & Kashmir police Chief Farooq Ahmed admits that more and more land is still coming under poppy and cannabis cultivation every year. “One day we keep peace in a particular area, another day we are busy attending to law and order situations and most of the time the police force is dealing with counterinsurgency,” he says.
However, the key reason for government’s failure to check proliferating drug abuse is that the revenue authorities and the narcotics control department are largely comatose in preforming their role to curb drug cultivation. Section 133A in the Revenue Act empowers the authorities to seize any land under illegal cultivation. A one-time fine of Rs 5,000 can be imposed on the owner along with Rs 500 every day till the land is restored to its original crop. “This provision has never been invoked in Kashmir, even before the present scenario emerged,” says Farooq.
While poppy is sold to markets outside, mainly through truck drivers who come from outside the state, in raw forms like the powdered fukki, a substantial portion of charas extracted from the cannabis crop is consumed locally. Police say most of it goes to Punjab and Delhi while a tiny proportion of the refined drugs are sold in Mumbai at very high prices. “Fortunately, growers in Kashmir do not extract opium from their poppy crop, otherwise it will be uncontrollable,” says a senior police official who wishes to remain anonymous.
In the summer of 2006, businessman Bashir was inside a mosque near his house when men of a pro-government counter-insurgent militia led by the dreaded militant Papa Kashtawari barged in and dragged his neighbour and friend out. Bashir witnessed his friend being shot dead in the mosque compound. He rushed to get a vehicle to take his friend to hospital.
The militants he knew dragged another person from his house nearby and shot him dead too. Witnessing the violent incident, Bashir trembled and collapsed. “I took to alcohol and could not live without it until four months back,” he says. He sought help after Kashtawari’s arrest in 2008 and finally enrolled in the police de-addiction centre in Srinagar. It took Bashir over a year to end his alcohol addiction. Bashir says he knows at least 30 other men in his neighbourhood in a similar condition.
A 2006 STUDY by a team of experts from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) operating in Kashmir undertook a sample study about the mental health conditions in the region. It concluded that the suicide rate in Kashmir had risen a whopping 400 times in 15 years due to the armed conflict. That rate is now nearly twice India’s average of 20 per 100,000 population.
“[The] mental and physical health needs are high, while the coping mechanisms of individuals are predominantly dysfunctional,” the report said. “Even with a definitive end to violence, it could be expected that a substantial number of people would need support to overcome their problems. This assumption is confirmed by our findings of high mental health needs despite the decrease of violence since 2004.”
In south Kashmir, youths in entire villages have taken to drug abuse. On an average day, police stations are locking up groups of drug peddlers and addicts in their attempts to curb the phenomenon. These youth are becoming a social menace and the village elders have started reporting them to the army, on the pretext of having connections to militancy, after they failed to intervene socially. “But this is driving distress levels among the youth further up and renders them more susceptible to exploitation by vested interests from all sides,” says a top police official. Like the unending cycle of militancy in the Valley, drug abuse is now becoming a vicious cycle.