Opioid Addiction in Punjab, India

Published 11/02/2022 in Scholar Travel Stipend
Written by Simrankaur Wahan | 11/02/2022

“When you inject needles in your wrists everyday for years, you don’t think you’ll ever stop.”

This is the reality of the over 123,000 opioid addicts in Punjab, India.

The number of addicts in Punjab is four times the worldwide average and almost 75% of the state's youth is addicted to drugs, mostly opioids. These alarming statistics took me to the lush fields of Punjab, where I met with Punjab Agricultural University Professor of Journalism, Sarabjeet Singh Renuka, who had previously run a de-addiction center 'Aas Kiran.' Dr. Renuka gave me background about how drugs were smuggled into Punjab from Pakistan and how prosperity from the Green Revolution of the 1970s gave Punjab's youth the time and money to indulge in drugs. I then traveled to Navin Saver (“New Morning”) Drug De-Addiction Center in Mullanpur dist. Ludhiana, Punjab (the oldest de-addiction center in Punjab) to speak with these youth myself. I walked inside the room of patients and introduced myself as their sister.

"I'm your younger sister Simran and I'm praying for your recovery," were my first words. Just then, a young boy sprinted in with a notebook in his hand and book bag on his back. 
    My jaw dropped as the manager, Captain Major Singh, informed me, "This is Narinder, our 13-year old patient. He's been here for three months and we're keeping him at our center post-treatment so he'll stay in school and off the streets."

I gathered everyone around me, as I sat on the corner of a patient's bed. I asked their names, ages, stages of treatment, types of drugs they took, their first time, what prompted them to continue, how they came to a treatment center, their plans for the future, and their messages for today’s youth.

“My cousin handed me dode (poppy powder-a type of opium) when I was 13. He died a few years ago,” spoke Ramandeep, a 21-year old patient, who had just been in the treatment facility for two days. But who were people like Ramandeep’s cousin? And how did they get young children addicted?

“They’re just youth like us on the streets. They give you drugs for free for a few months until you end up becoming their customers and demand them. There’s a person selling drugs in every third or fourth house on a block. If I go back, my friends will still be there selling the same drugs,” sighed Lakhvir, a 28-year old patient.

But it’s not just Lakhvir’s friends who will be controlling the illegal drug market. To my surprise, Dr. Amarpreet Singh Deol, who runs his own hospital in addition to Navin Saver, told me, “Let’s say our center treats 300 patients one year. After the next election, more than half of them will be back here.”

Election? What did that mean? It meant that politicians hand out free drugs during elections for votes. And it’s not just the politicians who have a hand in this drug catastrophe, it’s the police who allow drugs to be transported, the teachers who keep drugs education out of their curriculum, the friends who act as bystanders and choose to remain silent about their peers, and the parents who fail to give their children care and attention.

“We can’t control the supply, but we can all help reduce the demand for drugs,” Dr. Renuka told the talented professional youth gathered at Ludhiana’s Sukrit Trust for a seminar.

I had the pleasure of presenting to these talented youth about how they can help mentor the next generation and keep them away from drugs. I began my lecture with my first impression of Punjab’s Ludhiana, “When I set foot into your city, the first things I saw were travel posters to study and settle in USA and Canada. Entire shopping markets glorified the wonderful life one could live ‘abroad.’ But when all of you choose to leave Punjab and go abroad, who will be left to help Punjab become the vibrant, lush, and spiritual land it once was?”

As I spoke, I remembered the words of a patient I had met named Majer Singh, “They go there and make a life out of themselves. What will they do here?”

It hurt to hear that, in his mind, the best option to escape his pains was to escape his home, Punjab. His hopelessness meant that people didn’t think Punjab had the resources or potential to develop into a safe, healthy, and happy home. I became determined to do whatever I could to change that.

But how could Punjab become drug free? This was not a problem that would be solved in a few days, but rather a gradual push for efforts and legislation by the public. Dr. Renuka reminded the seminar attendees of a successful drug-free campaign he led a few years back in which students flooded mailboxes of elected officials begging for their help and support in lowering Punjab’s addiction rate. Students at the Sukrit Trust eagerly nodded their heads and exclaimed that a movement like this must return.

When drugs plague almost 75% of a state’s youth, how do you start such a movement? Do you look toward treating youth of the current generation, or preventing young children from falling into the same traps their elder brothers and sisters did?

I asked Dr. Deol this very question and he explained the reality, “The amount of time, money, and efforts we spend on treating one patient is not worth it. We could be spending this same time and money on preventing so many others from becoming addicts in the future. He continued, “It’s the bitter truth, but we have lost a generation. And it’s our job to save the next one.”

Prevention is not necessarily the easier route, but it’s the most practical one. Prevention begins within the home- when the mother watching her nightly soap operas chooses to switch off the television and spend the evening teaching her child a new lesson, or when the father drinking every night at dinner chooses to stay sober. Prevention begins within the school- when the teacher chooses to include precautionary drugs education in her 5th or 6th grade curriculum as opposed to avoiding mentioning the topic altogether. Prevention begins within the friend circle- when you surround yourself with positive souls, nobody can dare break your peace of mind and force you to try a different ‘high.’

I ended my lecture at the Sukrit Trust by pleading the gathered young, promising students to become the positive company for those 13 or 14 year olds still conflicted over whether they should try drugs.

“Visit your elementary schools and give presentations to make students aware of what’s around them. Start mentoring your neighbors and encouraging them to aim to go to college. Help keep children off the streets by creating more recreational centers for them to refocus their energy and attention,” I suggested.

At the end of the day, substance abuse is not just one person’s job; it’s a collective effort. Everyone can pitch in some time out of their busy work and school lives to give back to helping their bleeding home. Even those living thousands of miles away from Punjab can help by raising awareness of the issue and bringing it to the agenda of policy makers. 

Together, we can teach the burnt flower to blossom once again.

Bahut Sara Pyaar (Lots of Love),


13 year old Narinder Singh is saluting you because he wants to grow up to be a police officer who stops drugs2. Ill never forget the last words he said to me.

13 year old, Narinder Singh, is saluting you because he wants to grow up to be a police officer who stops drugs. I'll never forget the last words he said to me, "Teach me to smile, Didi. I want to smile."