It does not take long to be offered drugs in Maqboolpura, a village outside the northern Indian city of Amritsar, not far from the Pakistani border. So many men here have died from drug use that the village is nicknamed “the place of widows.”
Maqboolpura offers a window into a drug epidemic that government and U.N. officials say is gripping young men in the state of Punjab. The trend, they say, is driven by unemployment and frustrated economic expectations, as well as the ready availability of smuggled Afghan heroin and other pain-relieving drugs known as opioids that are manufactured in India and often sold without prescriptions in pharmacies.
Punjab, India’s only Sikh-majority state, prospered from the nation’s “green revolution” and the introduction of high-yield crops in the 1970s. But it failed to build on that boom to attract industrial investment. In the past two decades, population growth has caused landholdings to shrink and economic growth has stagnated.
“It’s a very big problem, and our youth is being engulfed in it,” said Ravinder Singh Sandhu, a sociologist who has published research on the drug epidemic but who said authorities have ignored his findings. “Punjabis are very aspirational people, and when their aspirations are not fulfilled, then they are depressed.”
Drug use has long been a problem in India’s remote and insurgency-plagued northeast, as well as in cities such as Delhi and Mumbai. But the spread of drugs in Punjab, whose economy is the ninth-
largest of India’s 28 states, is a recent development that does not bode well for the nation, especially if the sharp economic slowdown of the past two years continues and youth unemployment rises.
A history of opium use
Punjab has a reputation for partying and heavy drinking. It also has a history of drug use. For years, landowners gave raw opium to migrant farm laborers to encourage them to work harder.
But it was the rise over the past two decades of the Golden Crescent region — which became the world’s main poppy-growing and heroin-producing center and encompasses Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran — that turned Punjab into a major transit route for the drug. Afghan heroin was smuggled into Pakistan, transported to the port in Mumbai and shipped to the West. But some of the heroin was cut to a lower quality and sold here cheaply.
Attempts in the past decade to tighten security along India’s border with Pakistan drove up the price of heroin and pushed people toward over-the-counter pharmaceuticals that produce a similar euphoric high, experts say.