Punjab academy books classrooms to tackle drug menace

A line of rural academies is tackling the narcotics and alcohol menace in the state where nearly 70 percent households have at least one member addicted to drugs


Jasleen Kaur | December 18, 2013

The Akal Academy has helped in saving many children from taking the drugs route
The Akal Academy has helped in saving many children from taking the drugs route

The national media, and as a corollary the nation, woke up to the narcotic menace prevalent in Punjab when Congress leader Rahul Gandhi highlighted the issue a year ago. Addressing a rally in Sangrur, Punjab, in October last year, Gandhi, now the party’s vice-president, said seven out of 10 youths in the state suffer from drug problem.

Suddenly, the lid was off.

But what everyone missed in the hullabaloo was the simple yet stark fact that the can was always full of worms – at least it has been over the last few decades. Or so it seems.

Ask Jagtar Singh, for instance. Now 17 and off addiction, Jagtar had barely stepped into his teens when he started consuming ‘bhukki’, a residue of opium, a very popular mode of addiction that was easily available in his village – Kakrala Bhaike in Patiala district – like it is in most villages of the state. From heroin and cocaine to pharmaceutical drugs – the boy took them all in the next three years or so.

A rich landlord, Jagtar’s father was one of the most prosperous men of Kakrala Bhaike. Money, thus, was never a problem. But graduating from bhukki to other substances (throw in alcohol to the list), and it drills a big hole in your pocket – Jagtar admits stealing money from home and, at one point, spending as much as '1,000 a day on drugs and alcohol.

Later, Jagtar says, he started getting commission on sale of drugs to other young children in the village: “If I could add 10 children, I could get a day’s dose for free.” So where did it all start? Shockingly enough, at the government school in his village, where he studied till class VI. “No one in our school told us that drugs are harmful. In fact, most of our teachers were on heroin, alcohol and tobacco.”

Not all such addicts come from affluent families, though. Gagandeep Singh, for instance, left studies in class V to work at a tea stall for the money he needed to buy drugs. Having caught the addiction at the age of 12, for the next five years he consumed anything he could afford – bhukki, zarda, opium and any capsule they can manage to lay their hands on, he says.

It was not difficult to get them, says the youth from Dhaula village in Barnala district. “There are known drug peddlers in my village, and you can get over the counter capsules even at medical stores,” he says. “Shopkeepers earlier sold prescription drugs and capsules but now give it only to regular buyers.”

In Punjab, Jagtar and Gagandeep’s story is as common as mustard fields portrayal of the state for Hindi films. The record books say a staggering 70 percent of the youth is hooked to drugs, as Rahul Gandhi said in October 2012 citing an affidavit submitted by the state government to the Punjab and Haryana high court in 2009.

You name a drug and its use is rampant in Punjab. And the problem cuts through the caste and class barriers – as Jagtar and Gagandeep’s cases highlight.

So while the rich get high on heroin and cocaine, the poor depend more on bhukki, pharmaceutical drugs and injections. Many get their daily dose from cough syrups like Corex, Phensedyl or tablets like Proxyvon – available over the counter.

According to a government estimate, over 7,000 patients undergo treatment at government and private drug de-addiction centres in the state every year. The success rate is barely 30 percent. After the treatment, experts say, most patients either go back to drugs or get addicted to pharmaceutical drugs they are treated with (there are cases of people getting hooked to even Iodex).

Bypassing de-addiction centres

So what did Jagtar and Gagandeep do differently? Unlike many others, these boys did not take the de-addiction centre route. Instead, they returned to school, attending classes and also undergoing vocational training to stay away from narcotics.

“Many of my friends went to de-addiction centres, where they were kept for six months. But only one of them left drugs and started working with his father. Others got back (to addiction) after leaving the centre,” Jagtar says.

Jagtar says his father put him in Akal Academy in Sirmaur district of Himachal, run by the Kalgidhar Trust that has several such branches in rural Punjab to help such children and their families quit drugs through value-based education. The academy, he says, is even providing them skills to take up jobs once they leave the institutions.

In less than a year’s time, Jagtar says he has changed “completely” – a change that he would not have experienced had he taken the de-addiction centre route. “It is not easy to quit drugs,” clarifies Jagtar, now studying the bridge course to appear for regular class X examination as also doing a vocational course in management system to improve his job prospects.

“I ruined precious years of my life and till I didn’t know whether I have a future,” now baptized, Jagtar says he is studying free of cost.

“De-addiction centres are not the solution for children like Jagtar,” says Jagjit Singh, who monitors rehabilitation of children and youth addicted to drugs at the academy in Sirmaur. “A whole generation has been destroyed because of drugs but we can save the children by treating them, and also bringing them on the path of value-based education.”

Calling de-addiction centres a growing business in Punjab, he says value-based education is “not just helping them (drug addicts/victims) but also inspiring elders in their family.”

He says it was not easy for the academy to bring Jagtar out of drugs: “He would find reasons to go to the hospital in the academy and would steal medicines to use as an alternative to drugs. But we believe these children recover faster when they study with other children.”

Gagandeep was also able to get rid of drugs earlier this year with the help of one such academy in Cheema, a small town, in Sangrur district of Punjab. He subsequently took up a vocational course in music and is completing his studies simultaneously.

A school called hope

Jagjit Singh, who manages 30-odd youth from Punjab at the academy in Himachal Pradesh’s Sirmaur district, says many children stay back to work with the trust while some prefer to return to their villages.

The problem of narcotics is not limited to the youth, he stresses: over 50 percent of the administrative staff at the Sirmaur academy was once addicted to drugs.

“The police claim they seize large quantity of drugs each year but a large amount of it still finds its way to these children,” he rues.

About the Akal Academy, Singh says it started with just five students and a single room in 1986 and today has established a chain of schools in rural Punjab. Though they all are established in villages, the schools, Singh says, offer quality education at par with the best schools in the vicinity.

So far, 129 schools have already been established across the villages in the state, of which 19 are senior secondary, 40 are till class VI or more, and 70 are primary and pre-primary-level institutions. In all, about 60,000 students are enrolled in these 129 schools, with the number increasing each year. They are taught by about 4,650 teachers and other supporting staff.

Kalgidhar Trust opens schools till class II to maintain the minimum quality requirements of the CBSE. Every year, each school graduates to the next class, with the required classrooms, laboratories and other infrastructure needs added accordingly.

All this is done without any financial support from the government, say officials from the Trust.

The academy has 25 percent of students from families hailing from marginalised sections of the society with an annual income less than '80,000 – these students are admitted free of cost. This is a practice followed much before the Right to Education Act was implemented in the state. The trust, officials say, is now working to increase intake and admit another 25 percent children from economically weaker sections.

The trust, officials say, now has its eyes set on opening a total of 500 such academies in villages of Punjab.

The organisation, Kalgidhar, was founded by Teja Singh, a social activist who returned to India after completing his education from Harvard University in 1963 with an aim to provide education to village students. It was registered as a trust in 1982.

Such is the significant role these academies have played in bringing social change in villages that many now want the trust to start such institutions in their villages and are willing to provide land and other support.

Lessons against drugs

Besides playing a key role in helping children and the youth to quit drugs, these academies are also motivating them to inspire other family members to say no to all kinds of addiction.

Take Kangandeep Kaur, for instance. The class VI student at the academy in Cheema says she used to be scared of her father, who often returned home drunk and took “some form” of drugs. As a result, she had never interacted with him.

“We are taught (at school) that drugs and alcohol make us handicapped; we cannot think for our families and the society. I have been part of anti-drug rallies and street theatre conducted by the school. But at home I used to see my father drinking every day and getting violent. I was scared of him and would never talk with him,” she says.

But one day, at dinner, Kangandeep refused to share the table with her father and that changed the life of her family forever. “My mother had pleaded umpteen times for him to quit drugs and alcohol, but to no avail. I did not know how to tell him. Two years back, I decided to boycott him, and that really affected him,” she says. “Next day, he came to me and promised that he would quit alcohol and drugs forever. I could not believe it, he was an addict for more than 10 years! But he kept his promise.”

Giving all credit to the young girl, Kangandeep’s father, a smalltime businessman, says: “Many people had urged me but I could never quit. These children are given value-based education (at Akal academy) and it’s because of her that I could come out of it.”

There are many private schools nearby but none really focus on value-based education, says Gagandeep Singh, another student at the academy. He also blames the government for not doing enough to get rid of this menace. 

“Liquor and drugs are openly distributed to swing votes during elections and a whole generation has succumbed to this,” says Gagandeep, who lost his father because of drugs and alcohol. “In fact, the sarpanch or the panchayat of some villages get commission on sale of liquor.”

Manjeet Kaur, principal of the academy at Cheema, which has over 1,700 children, says though many states face the problem, consumption is high mainly because the state has the problem of plenty. “People have a lot of money here (in Punjab). And with education having long taken a backseat along with high unemployment, the youth get easily attracted to drugs accessible in the state,” she said.

At another village, Fategarh Ganduan in Sangrur district, Rajveer Singh says he moved his children from a private school to the Akal Academy two years ago. The reason, he says, was the increasing drug problem among schoolchildren. “Students sell drugs outside their schools, and you cannot keep eye on your children 24 hours. There are many private schools in and around our village but the kind of education and social environment this academy is providing our children is not available anywhere.

“In return, they hardly charge anything.”

Harvinder Singh, the village sarpanch, says 40 percent of the 600 households in the village are affected by drugs at one point. “Drugs like heroin and smack aren’t the only problem. A large number of people get their daily fix from medicine shops as well. People often say that two things open early in Punjab – liquor shops and medicine shops.”

Illegal chemist shops in Punjab have been raided regularly but most end up reopening within a few weeks.

Stressing that the academy has helped saving many children from taking the drugs route, sarpanch Harvinder Singh says: “Families in Punjab are now looking hard for quick-fix solutions for their children to come out of drugs. And when we are unable to see the political will to address this menace, academies run by the trust are proving to be a savior for many. It would, however, be a long time before we can call Punjab a drugs-free state.”

Till then, the Akal academies are taking nano-steps to do the needful – in whatever small way.

(This story first appeared in the December 16-31 edition of the magazine)



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