The Indian state of Punjab is in the grip of a drug abuse crisis. Surveys indicate that more than half of all rural households are home to at least one drug addict, a problem most severe along the Pakistan border.
Manish Khular, an 18-year-old school dropout is smoking smack, an adulterated form of heroin, in a dingy flat along with a bunch of friends. He carefully prepares a wrap of the drug, then leans over the heated silver foil to smoke it before lolling back, staring wide-eyed at the ceiling.
"This is bliss. I have been doing this for nearly two years. I can't get off," Khular told DW. He gradually drifts into a stupor.
Punjab - a drug epidemic
Drug abuse is not new but matters have been getting worse in recent months as almost a whole generation of young people is being lost to a menace that has literally shattered the physical and mental health of Punjab's youth.
From heroin and opium to barbiturates, cough syrup and alcohol, there has been an alarming rise in the number of teens addicted to drugs, which are freely available.
One survey by the state's department of Social Security Development of Women and Children late last year suggested that as many as 67 percent of rural households in Punjab had at least one drug addict in the family. Worse, there is at least one death due to drug overdose each week in the region.
It also revealed that most drug addicts belong to the 16-to-35 age group, indicating the high vulnerability of young people in the border belt.
"If we don't do anything about this problem, one entire generation of youth will be wiped away. There is no political will and the awareness campaigns need to be stepped up," Dr. P. D. Garg, a psychiatrist at the state-run Guru Nank Dev hospital, told DW.
Garg sees at least 30 patients everyday and is distressed by the rising numbers of drug abuse among them.
"Families have been destroyed because of this and I see no respite. It is almost as if the entire Punjab is in the octopus-like grip of different kinds of drug abuse," he said.
Dr. Hardeep Singh, a consultant at a private hospital, pointed out that if the drug problem went unchecked, cases of HIV/AIDS spread through syringes would also rise.
Singh also said he has seen a rise in the number of patients. "The problem of drug addiction is steadily assuming alarming proportions in Punjab's border areas which include many villages adjoining Pakistan. Several youth, who were expected to take up their traditional agricultural business, are instead trapped in this vicious cycle," Singh told DW.
Dark days ahead
Heroin is the drug that is causing most concern in the region. With the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and the comeback of opium crops, there has been widespread smuggling of drugs from across the border as well as more organized efforts to spread the drug habit among youth, according to authorities.
Alarm bells rang in the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Indian security agencies late last year when a bumper seizure of drugs being smuggled into India from Pakistan was held up by authorities near the Punjab border last year.
Officials say the 275 kg-seizure clearly showed the increasing demand for drugs in the state.
"Smuggling syndicates across the border are always looking at ingenuous ways to ship drugs. They are constantly improving and we have to be one step ahead. We are doing our best but I know the problem is serious," J. S. Prasad, Amritsar's sectoral commander of the Border Security Force told DW.
"Forget about what goes undetected," he added.
For now, the high numbers of young people in Punjab addicted to drugs has become a national problem. And unless something is seriously done by the authorities, it could well spiral out of control.