Free delivery of drugs during elections

INDIA: In this photograph, Romesh Mahajan speaks during an interview at the Red Cross Integrated and Rehabilitation Centre in Gurdaspur.-AFP

GURDASPUR, India: Opium addict Rajendar usually has to beg, steal or borrow to get his fix but at election season in India's Punjab province, a packet is delivered to his home in a bid to win his vote. "Like all addicts, I love elections and wish we had them every month," the 38-year-old says with a twinkle in his eye. "It's the easiest time to get hold of what you need and everyone gets what they want. Normally we have to go out and find a dealer but at election time it gets delivered to your home for free." Rajendar, a farm laborer who is married with two children, is one of tens of thousands of addicts in Punjab who have earned the northern state an unwelcome reputation as India's drugs capital.

While inducing voters with household appliances, alcohol or cash is widespread in some parts; electoral officials say candidates in Punjab try to woo addicts with free drugs. Punjab is one of five states holding elections in the next few weeks, with the first round beginning on Feb 4. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and opposition leader Rahul Gandhi have addressed rallies in major towns and cities across the state, trying to sway voters with their oratory. But, as a former chief election commissioner explained, the appeal to voters in rural villages is often at a baser level.

Heroin seizures

"In 2012, when we conducted the Punjab state elections, we suspected the use of drugs during polls... and found drugs were in fact a very serious issue," SY Quraishi, chief commissioner from 2010-12, said. "In one month alone, we recovered around 55 kilograms of heroin, around 430 kilograms of poppy husk (the raw ingredient of opium) and found almost every psychotropic substance in circulation." The results of a government-commissioned survey in 2015 estimated there could be as many as 320,000 "opioid dependent individuals" in the state which has a population of 27 million. Heroin was the most commonly-used drug, followed by opium which is legally grown in parts of India under government license for medical use.

In the four weeks since the date of this year's polls was announced at the beginning of Jan, the commission says more than 2.63 tons of drugs, including heroin and opium, have been seized. That compares with a figure of 2.03 tons in Uttar Pradesh which has a population of around 205 million and is also holding state elections. Drugs have become a hot button election issue, with opposition parties blaming the current state administration-an ally of Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party-of looking the other way at the crisis. Candidates promise new laws or heavier sentences for drug offences, their tough-talking pledges warmly cheered at rallies.

But Romesh Mahajan, project director of an addiction rehabilitation centre, says campaigners for parties or independent candidates prey on villages by offering them the same drugs they pledge to eradicate. Mahajan said the problem was particularly acute in the period before the date was set for the polls which is when the commission's monitors start trying to enforce a code of conduct with flying visits. Some voters, particularly women, are identified as wanting money and are subsequently handed cash. Others however are identified as wanting their various addictions fed. "There are people who want alcohol and then there are people who want opium or heroin or pills," Mahajan said at his centre in Gurdaspur district.

Enjoy while it lasts

Rajendar, who attends Mahajan's clinic but asked that his surname not be used, said addicts were more than happy to promise their vote to a particular candidate, regardless of policies. "You never care about who's going to win. As long as they give you your fix, you promise to vote for them. You make the same promise to whoever comes along," said Rajender who is trying to wean himself off opium. "We know that after the elections, we won't see them again so you have to enjoy it while it lasts." Another addict called Indarjeet, who is trying to kick a heroin habit, said it was "very common" to be offered drugs in return for backing a candidate.

"When they get to the village they say 'take whatever you want, as long as you vote for our guy' and then they send someone back later" with drugs or alcohol, he said. "When you're offered something for free then of course, you'll take it. You don't care about the election, only about feeding your habit." Police are carrying out spot checks on vehicles at election time to make sure they are not loaded with freebies, including cash, alcohol and drugs. "We are committed to controlling this menace in this area and our officers our working tirelessly," M F Farooqui, an inspector general of Punjab police, said.--AFP