Punjab's drug menace, which Chief Minister Captain (Retd) Amarinder Singh had sworn by the holy Gutka Sahib to wipe out within four weeks of coming to power, has come to haunt his government with reports suggesting a surge in the deaths of addicts.
The 16-month Congress government in Punjab is in a spot after a spate of deaths, allegedly due to drug overdose or the use of adulterated heroin.
The apparent surge in such cases comes at a time when the government is implementing an ambitious mission called 'Tandrust Punjab', meant to improve the people's physical and mental health by taking care of the state's air, water and food quality.
Wary of a public backlash if it fails to tackle the menace ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the state Cabinet recently recommended to the Centre to allow death penalty for drug peddlers and smugglers, a move some activists dubbed a "knee-jerk" reaction.
Under immense pressure from social activists and the opposition parties, the state government also announced mandatory dope tests for all government employees.
This angered them and also triggered a political slugfest with the main opposition Aam Aadmi Party daring the chief minister to set an example by coming forward to take the test himself.
However, Shiromani Akali Dal, whose previous coalition government was accused of patronizing the drug mafia, has urged people to rise above political affiliations and fight a "comprehensive war" against a common enemy.
According to reports, about 20 people died last month in Punjab because of drug overdose although the state health department has confirmed only two such deaths.
Some videos purportedly showing addicts dying of drug overdose have also surfaced on social media, adding to the pressure on Captain Singh.
But the state government claims it is acting effectively against the problem.
A special task force formed by Captain Singh soon after coming to power claimed to have choked the supply of drugs, especially heroin, to the state.
It is argued that it is this "shortage" that has forced addicts to consume adulterated drugs, which was leading to the deaths.
"The intensive action plan unfolded and executed by us over a year has resulted in the arrest of 18,977 drug peddlers and the treatment of more than two lakh drug victims," Captain Singh has said.
But the opposition parties blame the "nexus" between the police and drug peddlers for the problem and accuse the state government of failing to deal with it.
"The investigation into the recent drugs-related deaths should be handed over to a high court-monitored CBI team so that a fair and proper inquiry is conducted," said an AAP leader.
RS Ghuman, Professor of Economics at the Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development (CRRID), said the "deceleration" of the economy and unemployment were the main factors driving the youth to drugs.
Professor Ghuman, who is carrying out a study on drug abuse in northwest India, stressed on smashing the "nexus" between the police and drug peddlers at the village level.
The problem cannot be addressed unless the youths are gainfully employed and a serious effort made to boost economic growth, he said.
Noted economist and Padma Bhushan awardee Sardara Singh Johal has asked youths to form groups to stop the supply of drugs into their villages, saying the state government could not do it alone.
"Sober youths should stand like a wall in their villages and prevent drug suppliers from selling any sort of intoxicant," said Mr Johal who supported a campaign called 'Black Week against Chitta (drugs)'.
Punjab government has claimed to have arrested 18,977 drug peddlers and registered 16,305 cases from March 16, 2017 to June 24, 2018.
Seizures during this period amounted to 378 kg heroin, 117 kg charas and 14 kg smack, along with varying quantities of other drugs, officials said.
The government has also constituted a special working group to monitor on a day-to-day basis the action being taken to check drug abuse.
Punjab has over 130 drug de-addiction centres and around 100 rehabilitation centres.
An Outpatient Opioid Assisted Treatment (OOAT) programme was launched by the health department last year to provide outdoor healthcare to addicts.
So far, over 8,000 patients have registered and are being treated. The total footfall at OOAT clinics has been recorded at 2,74,938, a health department official said.
Death penalty, however, will not work, according to city-based human rights lawyer Navkiran Singh.
"Death penalty is no solution to combat the drug problem," he said, calling it a mere knee-jerk reaction and reminding that government had not even called an all-party meeting on drug abuse in the state.
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