Every hour, a new drug addict walks into a deaddiction centre in Jammu and Kashmir. In 2016, the Oral Substitution Therapy (OST) Centre at the Government Medical College in Srinagar reported only 489 cases, which grew seven times in 2017 to 3,000. In 2019, the number climbed to 7,000 and crossed the 10,000 mark in 2021 with an overall 2,000% spike in the last five years.
Officials say the number of drug addicts in the union territory is on a “scary constant rise”. What’s more worrying, they say, is that these patients range from across the socioeconomic classes, from different regions in J&K, and from the age group as young as ten to twelve years.
Rising drug menace and related health crisis
21-year-old Hashim (name changed), a resident of Khanyar in Srinagar, sits quietly on a cold metal bench in a poorly lit verandah of OST Srinagar that leads straight to the counselling room. There are at least six others waiting before him. He is here for his regular sessions.
Speaking to CNN-News18, Hashim recalls that it was nine years ago when it all started with smoking cannabis. Then, he was just 12. For the past five years, he has been a severe heroin addict. It was only after developing critical health complications and all his finances extinguished, that he succumbed to his family’s incessant demands of reporting him to a drug deaddiction centre.
“When I started on drugs I was in the sixth standard. In no time, I moved to pharmaceutical opioids and then heroin. By the time I could gain any sense, I had developed critical health conditions. I was surviving only on heroin without any food or required medication. Soon, we ran out of finances and I had ruined my family’s life,” said Hashim, who now works at a spice packaging unit in Srinagar.
Two persons ahead of Hashim, sits another patient. Fiddling with a face mask in his hand, anxiously waiting to enter the counselling room next, he says he has been fighting heroin addiction for the past six years. “The doctors say that the damage I have caused to my health will take years to recover. I have so far spent over one crore rupees in procuring drugs and then in my treatment, all over a period of 18 years,” said the man who is now 31 and lives with his family in the Buchpora area of Srinagar.
The rising drug abuse cases particularly in such a younger class have also left the doctors worried.
Dr Fazal, a senior resident at OST Srinagar, who deals with such patients on a day-to-day basis, says he has seen drug abuse patients as young as 10. “Most of them give in due to peer pressure. Almost every patient we see narrates how they start with cannabis or alcohol and then move to pharmaceutical opioids and soon to heroin, all this even before they realise what’s approaching,” he said.
“Until 2010 we had only heard of mental health issues related to pharmaceutical opioid addiction in Jammu and Kashmir. Heroin cases started in 2012 but in 2016 we saw a massive boom. Since then, 95% of patients with addiction have been heroin users. The overall rise in the number of drug abuse patients is mammoth. From less than 489 patients in 2016 at our centre, the number of patients grew to over 10,000 in 2021. This has left us all shocked and worried. What’s more worrying is that at least 35% of these patients in 2021 were students. Around 60%-70% of all patients suffer from critical illnesses like hepatitis B or C and even HIV in some cases,” Fazal said.
When CNN-News18 reached out to officials from the union territory administration, they said they are aware of the situation. However, despite numerous efforts to curb the rising drug menace at all levels, they fear that J&K stares at an approaching severe health crisis.
Yasir M Choudhary, director, National Health Mission, J&K government, said the rise in cases has been apparent and so are health-related issues.
“We receive a lot of cases in our National Viral Hepatitis Control Programme. We have around 1,200 hepatitis C patients registered with us. Almost 80% of these are IV users, possibly drug addicts. These are only the registered cases while many others must have not even got themselves tested. Their medicines are expensive. Drug vials that we give them, many of them sell these to buy drugs. What we foresee is a rise in cases of acute liver failure here,” the officer said.
Easy availability and women in addiction
The menace of drug abuse in Kashmir has not left the woman untouched. In a worrying trend, experts suggest, “one-third” of the victims of drug abuse in Kashmir are women. Activists and counsellors who visit schools and colleges for awareness programmes say that the involvement of women remains uncommon as they do not come forward seeking treatment or assistance majorly due to the stigma attached to drug consumption and related mental health issues.
Ranbir Kour, a counsellor with Chotay Taray, an NGO working on rehabilitation of patients, said the involvement of women in drug abuse is only rising. “We have seen several cases of women struggling with drug addiction. It is the attached stigma, social pressure, and related taboo that they do not come forward till the time their condition worsens requiring immediate hospitalisation,” she said.
Experts say, apart from the related stigma and social pressure, scarce resources in J&K for women too refrain them from coming out openly.
Dr Mudasir, who runs a drug de-addiction facility in Anantnag, said if we consider drug addiction-related mental health a disease, it is very obvious that women who are into addiction will also fall prey to it.
“With such easy availability of drugs, particularly heroin, in schools, colleges, and other public places, anyone can be a victim. Unfortunately, we lack facilities for women. There aren’t dedicated rehabilitation centres for female patients. With rising cases and involvement of women, I believe we need to shift our focus on women without delay,” she said.
Stressing on the easy availability of drugs and the urgent need to address it, Arjumand Makhdoomi, activist and founder of Chotay Taray said he has come across cases where drugs were being consumed in schools.
“The root cause of such a worrying rise in drug abuse cases in Kashmir is only the easy availability. Unless we cut the supply, we can’t control the demand. Our security agencies have been working on busting the supply chain but the administration too needs to lay down stringent measures in place before it is too late. The abundant presence of narcotics, chiefly heroin, has increased manifold in Kashmir. Seeing regular operations by our security forces, there is no doubt that these drugs are coming in from across the border in Pakistan,” he said.
The cross-border narco-terror connect
In an early morning operation, on June 24, Budgam police in Kashmir arrested four men. Three grenades, and two magazines with 65 rounds of AK-47 rifle were recovered from them. Besides these, the recovered material of the proscribed terror outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) was a game changer.
Senior officials said that the preliminary investigation revealed the arrested men were allegedly involved in providing logistical support to LeT by distributing proceeds of narcotics trade to active terrorists and terror operatives of the outfit in the Valley.
Speaking to CNN-News18, a senior officer who was part of the operation, said the interrogation of the four men revealed that their module had been working on the directions of terror operatives for the collection of narcotics and subsequently distributing the proceeds among the terrorists.
In another case from last year, the NIA had arrested ten people in an alleged case of narco-terrorism from Uri in Kashmir. Two pistols, magazines, 10 live rounds, five grenades of Chinese make along with Rs 3 lakh paired with five packets of heroin weighing 4.75 kg were recovered following the arrests.
“During questioning, the men said that they had received a total of 11 packets of heroin and ten grenades with four pistols, magazines, and 20 rounds from across the border. Of Rs 3 lakh recovered from them, it was found that one lakh was given to them by a contact in Uri to whom they had delivered two pistols, a magazine, two rounds, and five grenades. Then they had given two packets of heroin to a man in Uri for Rs 2 lakh. We also found that one of the arrested persons was in touch with an aide named Mushtaq Ahmed in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) who was providing them with all the narcotics, arms, and ammunition after arranging them from across the border,” said an officer who wished not to be named.
The men further told interrogators that the weapons were delivered to militants to pull off acts of terror while the drugs were to be sold and the received money kept as a reward with a chunk of it sent to militants to arrange for logistics.
“We also found that one of the accused was in direct touch with a man, a garment businessman from Amritsar who operated from the UAE. One arrested person’s father was in Ferozpur jail and in contact with someone in Pakistan. It was the UAE man who got directions from Pakistan and then commanded others,” the officer added.
Agencies identify the main routes of narco smuggling into India via porous borders along the LoC in border areas of Tangdhar, Kupwara, Poonch, Rajouri, Baramulla, and Uri in Kashmir while Samba and Kathua near Jammu.
The local police also claim that the role of Pakistan behind rising drug-related cases in J&K, particularly heroin, is clear.
Deputy inspector general, J&K police, Sujit K Singh said regular crackdowns and past seizures of trucks full of quintals of narcotics that were driven into India in the garb of transporting dry fruits or fruits are proof of that. “These seized trucks are still in our possession,” he said.
Singh said with a rise in cases the police have intensified crackdowns at three levels – busting the supply, tracking the demand, and intercepting those operating from prisons. “Many such syndicates are being run from the jails as these small-time peddlers run into big players and terror group members who are lodged in jails across J&K,” the DIG said.
Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB), the nodal authority for drugs control in the country, also seconded the claims of the NIA and J&K police.
Rajesh Kumar, zonal director of NCB, Jammu and Kashmir, said 90% of the opium is produced in Afghanistan from where it is sent to Pakistan. “In Pakistan, the opium is converted to heroin which is then pumped into India illegally. We have stepped up our crackdown. The aim is to cut the incoming supplies which are blatantly Pakistan-sponsored,” Kumar said.