With his grocery store located in the maze of lanes in Sikh dominated Chananwal village in Barnala district of Punjab, Bawa Singh decided to stop selling tobacco products after the local Panchayat urged all shopkeepers to do so in wake of rising cases of drug abuse across Punjab.
Standing in his shop that caters to the local populace and attending his customers, Singh says, "We do not want that our youths should fall in the deathtrap of drugs due to which even sale of all tobacco products were banned in the village with a unanimous decision. We understand that tobacco is not a narcotic but death of hundreds of youths in Punjab due to drug overdose has left a mark on our minds."
Chananwal is known for its progressive NRI population in Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom among others sending remittance for development of the village.
While Chananwal has its own library, clean roads, park and even CCTV cameras across the village for safety, tobacco and alcohol had become a major problem till few years ago when women decided to take up the matter with the Panchayat forcing the latter to issue directions to shopkeepers to stop the sale of tobacco and cigarettes.
Sarpanch of Chananwal, Buta Singh, says that even alcohol vend that was located inside the village was relocated to an outer area by Panchayat. "There were cases where young boys started consuming alcohol and we became suspicious that they might slip into drug abuse. Later, tobacco products were also removed from all shops to end the menace," he says. He stresses that the library and park were constructed in a move to keep the youth away from drugs.
The village set an example for others in Malwa region (Southern Punjab) after which many other Panchayats have followed suit. Several villages in Sangrur, Mansa, Faridkot, Ludhiana and Bathinda districts have banned the sale of tobacco products.
In several instances, people came out to protest against liquor vends in their villages even as Punjab is known for high consumption of alcohol. The problem of drugs in Punjab is unique and more aggravate in rural areas unlike the rest of the country where drugs abuse is reported mostly in urban areas.
With the decline in agriculture due to over-exploitation of soil and groundwater and rise of industrialization, the yield of crops in the state declined, leading to a crisis in agriculture. This led to the shifting of occupation and unemployment among youths giving rise to the problem of drugs abuse.
Being in close proximity to Pakistan, Punjab has become a hotbed of drug abuse during the recent years. Recovery of narcotics in different parts of the state has become a routine affair. Locals in many parts have also sent their children to foreign countries to keep them away from drugs.
In Ubha village of Mansa district, at least 60 Kms from Chanwal, locals share a similar opinion and have also got tobacco banned from the village. Locals tell that some youths from the village had once become addicted to drugs but with the counselling from elders and strict vigil by police, drug menace has, to a large extent, ended. Thereafter, the Panchayat decided to stop the sale of even tobacco in the village and all shops were asked to follow the directions.
Shops in Ubha village have also pasted posters on their outer walls announcing that tobacco and cigarettes are not available.
A farmer and resident of Ubha village, Sukhwinder Singh, says that drug menace had taken lives in surrounding villages two to three years back. "People are often afraid of telling about death in their family due to drug overdose owing to social stigma. They often term such deaths as natural and do not allow police to conduct a postmortem. It was after an increase in such deaths that Panchayats of villages entered the scene and imposed a ban on tobacco and removed alcohol vend from the village," he says.
Even experts believe that tobacco is a gateway to drug addiction. A prominent psychiatrist based in Ludhiana, Dr Rajiv Gupta, says that many youths start smoking cannabis with tobacco in cigarettes. "This tendency increases the chances of them becoming drug and tobacco addict," Dr Gupta says.
Dr Gupta also says that a drug addict is not a single-substance user and in case he does not find costly narcotic, he may consume cheap liquor that is easily available in the market, leading him to become an alcoholic.
Punjab is one of the states with the highest prevalence of cannabis use as per a study by Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment.
"There is considerable heterogeneity regarding the prevalence of alcohol use in the country. States with the high prevalence of alcohol use are Chhattisgarh (35.6%), Tripura (34.7%), Punjab (28.5%) Arunachal Pradesh (28%) and Goa (28%). More than half the male population of Chhattisgarh, Tripura and Punjab uses alcohol," the study states and adds that a high proportion of children reporting alcohol use (more than thrice the national average) was noted in Punjab (6%), West Bengal (3.9%) and Maharashtra (3.8%).