Samay*, a grade eight student from Muktsar, Punjab got addicted to drugs in his teenage years. This addiction made him do things he would have not done otherwise. He started stealing money to meet his needs. One day, he got to stealing iron rods from a trolley in order to sell them for money. Unfortunately, all the iron rods piled on that trolley collapsed and fell on Samay, causing him serious injuries.
He was immediately taken to the hospital for an operation. He came from a financially weak background and his family could not afford the operation. The entire village came together to support the family. They collected money and got the operation done on time, which saved Samay’s life. After that day, Samay has been away from drugs.
But not everyone is as lucky as Samay. In June 2017, Anirudh, an 18-year-old from Chandigarh was killed due to drug overdose. Son of a police constable, Anirudh went missing and was later found dead. In May, a 19-year-old boy from the same city was found dead on a terrace because of taking the excess amount of drug. He had been treated at a drug de-addiction centre earlier for six months, but still could not resist it.
These are only a few cases out of the hundreds that are reported annually in the country. As per a report by National Crime Records Bureau, Ministry of Home Affairs Government of India, 750 deaths were reported due to the drug overdose in 2015.
The situation is startling in Punjab. Punjab Opiod Dependence Survey (PODS) organised by the National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre (NDDTC) estimates that there are about 2.3 lakh opioid dependent people in Punjab. Opiod includes drugs like heroin, opium and morphine. It also includes locally made narcotics like ‘dodda’ and ‘phukki’ which are made of plants. The report states that opioid dependent people are spending around 20 crore rupees per day on opioid drugs.
The report also says that almost 80 percent addicts report that they have tried to give-up drug use in the past, but just about 35 percent have received any kind of help or treatment.
“I started doing it because all my friends were into it. When my parents found out I tried quitting this habit several times. But I always got back to it because I was addicted. I really wanted to leave this but couldn’t. I have been going to regular counselling now. I haven’t taken any drugs for past three months. My parents don’t leave my side these days, they take care of my food and health. I want to be better for them,” said Anil*, a 21-year-old drug addict from Punjab.
While the condition is alarming in Punjab, Sciencedeep Singh, a 15-year-old boy from Chak Chibranwali village of Muktsar District, Punjab is solving the issue on the ground.
Samay is Sciencedeep’s friend. And when he faced such problems due to drug addiction, Sciencedeep decided to do something about it.
“The condition was bad. So many young kids were into drugs. Samay was one of them. These kids would go to nearby shops and buy the cheap and easily available drugs. I was really shocked and hurt by what happened to Samay. This is when I decided that being part of this village, I should take some steps,” said Sciencedeep.
Sciencedeep was just 13 when he decided to stop people from doing drugs in his village. In 2015, he initiated his fight against addiction and since then he has changed many lives.
But how can someone so young start a war against one of the most deep-rooted issues of the country? How did he manage to “save” his village, which even authorities could not?
The answer lies in the simple intentions of this young boy. “I just didn’t want my friends to get addicted. I love them,” he said.
Sciencedeep’s determination and positive thinking got a much-needed support from Save the Children organisation. Sciencedeep approached them and got a better understanding of the issue and how to go forward if he wanted to eliminate this problem from its root. The organisation also helped him design the awareness campaigns and posters.
He first started approaching small shops, which sold these drugs. He counselled the shopkeepers, put posters across his village and talked about the adverse effects of drug use. It wasn’t an easy journey in the beginning. Many shopkeepers abused him for disrupting their business. Some didn’t even take him seriously, but Sciencedeep was unaffected by all these obstacles. He kept doing his thing patiently. Gradually the change in the shopkeepers’ behaviour was visible. They stopped keeping and selling the drugs.
“Some shopkeepers readily agreed while some were reluctant and very tough. But gradually they got my point,” Sciencedeep said.
After that, Sciencedeep started door to door counselling. He spread awareness about drug abuse and also told people about ways to get rid of the habit.
“It didn’t happen overnight. It was a constant effort. If you tell someone to stop taking drugs they won’t do it in a day. I went to them every day and constantly spoke to them till they agreed to what I was saying,” Sciencedeep said.
A door to door counselling was crucial because children are exposed to drug abuse at a young age or have to face consequences of addiction among parents. If not monitored well, the children easily get addicted and its impact remains for years. Due to lack of financial support, the children get involved in criminal activities to meet their drug needs. All this starts at home, which is why Sciencedeep thought to address all the families of his village.
“I am a bright child in school. I also teach my friends sometimes maybe that is why they respect me and listen to me when I ask them not to do drugs,” he said.
The majority of the time, school dropouts are the ones who get easily exposed to drugs. This is why Sciencedeep is working to enroll these kids in schools again. “Our approach is to catch them young because it is easier to get rid of addiction at a young age,” he said.
In addition, Sciencedeep is also working with the administration to ensure police protection against the drug dealers in the village. He has also involved the Sarpanch of the village in his mission so that people take him more seriously.
Initially, a one man show, Sciencedeep’s initiative now has 15 kids working with him. This team of young change makers has managed to create a strong public will against drug abuse in the community.
Through the door to door visits, Sciencedeep has identified 26 children in his village who dropped out from the school. They were encouraged to re-enroll in the school and all of them now go to school regularly. Professional counselling and rehabilitation are also provided to these kids on a regular basis. He has also asked for more intervention by the Panchayat in this matter. He is also working to improve the policing in the village so that the abuse can be identified and stopped in the beginning itself.
Thanks to his efforts, drug usage in Chak Chibranwali has drastically dropped. Earlier about 80 percent of the total village youth was engaged in drug use, but today the number has come down to 45 percent. He claims that no shop sells drugs to kids in his village. The situation is such that if a person below 16 years of age goes to buy even a cigarette, the shopkeepers refuse to sell.
Inspired by Sciencedeep’s initiative, nearby villages have also taken up similar activities. He wants to spread this initiative across the country. Since people dealing with substance abuse are often from the criminal background, it is difficult for common people to voice against them. Sciencedeep wants to create a block level group. This group will identify and support children in need, take up awareness activities, share ideas and work closely with the district administration and police for better protection measures.
Dr Atul Ambekar, additional professor at the National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre (NDDTC) at the India AIIMS believes that restricting the supply of illicit drugs is not enough. There is a need to do a lot more. “Most drug-control programmes focus on restricting the supply of illicit drugs. This is not enough. The focus has to shift to demand reduction by preventing addiction and providing more treatment facilities for addicts,” Dr Ambekar said.
The condition in Chak Chibranwali village is much better now, thanks to Sciencedeep’s efforts. But the journey was not easy. “I faced a lot of backlash. It is a very sensitive topic. I had to be extra careful while dealing with the people,” said Sciencedeeps.
In spite of several challenges, Sciencedeep kept working towards his mission of making his village drug abuse free.
“My inspiration has been the people of the villages. When I see the drug addicts, I get more inspired to eliminate this horrible practice from my village,” he says.
Apart from this, it was his single mother’s constant support that kept him going. Sciencedeep’s father died when he was just eight years old. His mother has been the sole earning member of the family and also his biggest support.
“I am so proud of Sciencedeep. He is saving lives of many children. I couldn’t ask for more,” said Simran Singh, Sciencedeep’s mother. When asked if she gets worried sometimes because drug abuse is a serious problem and Sciencedeep is dealing with such people at a young age, she said, “Not at all. What is there to worry about. He is a brave boy. He is doing only good and there is nothing that can happen to a good soul,” she said.
A grade 11 student, Sciencedeep wants to finish studies soon so that he can do more substantial work on the ground. In his free time, he loves playing cricket and is inspired by the ace cricketer Sachin Tendulkar. He enjoys many outdoor activities, but yet, door to door visits to spread awareness about drug abuse is what he is most passionate about.
In future, Sciendeep wants to make his efforts grow even stronger. He wants people from across the country to replicate his model. He hopes more kids understand their responsibility and start a similar initiative in different villages across the country.
If you or one of your friend or relative is addicted, you can contact the Indian Government’s drug addiction support 24/7 helpline number-1800-11-0031. This list of organisations provide free service to the drug addicts and help them get rid of the habit.
Photos: Save the Children