Chandigarh: It was not exactly Punjab's best kept secret, but when Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi recently said that "seven out of 10 youths in Punjab have a drug problem", it led to an overdose of political reactions in the frontier state.
The Shiromani Akali Dal leadership, led by Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and his son and Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal, came out all guns blazing against Gandhi's comment, saying that he was trying to project Punjab's youth in a negative light.
But the Badal duo forgot that it was their own government which, in 2010, told the Punjab and Haryana High Court that nearly 70 percent of people in Punjab, especially youth, could be addicted to drugs and medicines.
Sukhbir Badal, in fact, went so far as to claim that Punjab's Congress leaders were on drugs.
This led to retaliation from the Congress camp with Punjab Congress chief and former chief minister Amarinder Singh advising the Badals to take the issue seriously and not laugh it off.
The 553-km barbed wire fenced international border between India and Pakistan in Punjab, despite the tight security of the Border Security Force (BSF), continues to have loopholes which smugglers on both sides use to push drugs.
In the first nine months of this year alone, the BSF has recovered over 220 kg of heroin. The seizure is much higher than the recovery made in the whole of last year.
Earlier this month, customs officials in Amritsar seized over 105 kg of heroin from cement bags that had come from Pakistan on a train. This was, perhaps, the biggest seizure of heroin in one go in Punjab. The heroin was valued at over Rs. 525 crore in the international market.
"Earlier, Punjab used to be a transit point for drugs coming from Pakistan and Afghanistan. But now, Punjab has emerged as a major destination of drugs itself. In rural areas, it is not uncommon to find drug addicts, especially youth," a senior Punjab Police officer told IANS here.
In the past, studies by universities, health officials, NGOs and even UN agencies have found that the extent of drug abuse in Punjab was unusually high. Some studies suggested that the incidence was over 70 percent.
So when Rahul Gandhi made his comment at a youth rally on the Panjab University campus earlier this month, he was not off the mark.
But what Gandhi himself failed to do was to provide solutions to the growing drugs problem in the state.
"Though the Akali Dal reaction to his statement is over the top, he (Gandhi) has also not taken the initiative to suggest measures to control the situation. Everyone needs to do something about it, otherwise a whole generation in Punjab will be lost to drugs," a senior Punjab Congress legislator said.
Though Gandhi's remark may have elicited strong reactions from the Akali Dal, even ruling party leaders admit that most of Punjab's over 12,000 villages have chemist shops even when they might not have schools or health centres.
"This only shows that people are consuming drugs which are otherwise not meant to be sold without prescription," the legislator said.