On the top floor of a two-storey house with faded walls, Azlan Ahmad sits fiddling with his phone in a corner of his room. His hands are trembling and he cries out to his mother in Kashmiri, “Mai go khabhar kya [I don’t know what’s happening to me].” He complains of a headache and body pain. Sakina Begum, his mother, rushes to the kitchen to fetch a glass of water. Hearing Azlan's cries, his father Bashir Ahmad comes into the room and tries to console him, saying that the doctors had informed him there would be withdrawal symptoms like this.
Over time, Sakina Begum and Bashir (all names have been changed to ensure privacy) have started securing 20-year-old Azlan’s room with a padlock, and the 10 windows in their house are kept shut. The room is close to the kitchen, from where his mother can keep a vigilant eye on him. “It’s painful to lock up your son, but I have no other option,” says Sakina Begum, 52, fearing that her son will start searching for drugs if he ventures out.
It has been two years since Azlan, who is unemployed and a school drop-out, became addicted to heroin. The habit started four years ago with shoe polish to get a high, and then moved on to medicinal opiates and charas (a derivative of cannabis) before escalating to heroin.
The addiction has been a blow for Azlan’s family, who live in the Chursoo area of Anantnag district in south Kashmir. “He has sold whatever valuables we had, from his mother’s earrings to his sister’s ring, to buy drugs,” says Bashir, 55, a paddy farmer. He found out about his son’s drug habit much after Azlan had stolen his ATM card and withdrawn nearly Rs. 50,000 from his account. “Guests who stayed at our place also complained that their money was being stolen here,” he adds.
But the full extent of the problem sank in a few months ago when Bashir saw his son remove a ring from his 32-year-old sister’s finger to purchase heroin. “The very next day I took him to the Drug De-addiction Centre in Srinagar for treatment. I trusted my son blindly and never thought he would be called a drug addict some day,” he says.
The de-addiction centre is located around 55 kilometres from Chursoo, at the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS) Hospital in Srinagar’s Karan Nagar area. Many battered by drugs, like Azlan, come here from all over Kashmir seeking help. The centre has 30 beds and an out-patient department, and is run by the Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (IMHANS) of the Government Medical College in Srinagar.
Among them is Kaiser Dar (name changed) from Kupwara district in north Kashmir. Dressed in jeans and a mustard jacket, the 19-year-old exchanges jokes with security guards while awaiting his turn to see the psychiatrist. His smiles vanish when it is time to go in.
Kaiser enjoyed playing cricket and football when he was a student at the Government College in Kupwara, before he was introduced to charas by a friend. Like Azlan, he experimented with different drugs and then moved on to heroin. “I started taking Corex [a cough syrup] and brown sugar, and now it’s heroin,” says Kaiser, whose father, a primary school teacher in a state-run school, earns around Rs. 35,000 per month. “After taking a dose, I felt happy, as if I was relieved of all my sorrows. I started craving it more. I became an addict in just two dozes.”
Across Kashmir, heroin abuse has spread like an epidemic, say psychiatrists at the De-addiction Centre in SMHS Hospital. “Multiple factors are responsible – the ongoing conflict, unemployment, breaking down of family structures, urbanisation and stress are some of the common reasons," explains Dr. Arshad Hussain, a professor at IMHANS.
And the drug use, some observe, has spiked in Kashmir after 2016. “There has been a steep rise in heroin addiction after 2016 when the commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen, Burhan Wani, was killed [by security forces, on July 8, 2016]. In 2016, we saw 489 patients. In 2017, the OPD had 3,622 patients, of whom 50 per cent were heroin addicts,” says Dr. Yasir Rather, head of the De-addiction Centre.
The number went up to 5,113 in 2018. In 2019, until November, the De-addiction Centre had received 4,414 patients, up to 90 per cent of them heroin abusers, adds Dr. Rather. But the main reason for the increase in addiction, he says, remains “easy availability, easy availability and easy availability.”
Addiction usually begins with using drugs for pleasure, explains Dr. Hussain. “The euphoria factor makes you increase the dose. Then one day you find yourself dependent on the drug, and you either die because of an overdose or develop problems." Adds Dr. Saleem Yousuf, a psychiatrist at the De-Addiction Centre, “The addicts can have mood swings, anxiety and depression, and they prefer to remain confined to their own room."
Azlan’s parents know this only too well. Sakina Begum says that he would fight with her a lot. Once he had to be taken to the doctor to get his hand stitched after he smashed the window panes in their kitchen. “The drug was making him do it,” she says.
Heroin can be abused in different ways – injected intravenously, inhaled in powdered form, or smoked. The injectables, however, make an addict feel very high. Prolonged use of heroin eventually changes the functioning of the brain, says Dr. Rather. It is an expensive habit too – a gram of the drug typically costs over Rs. 3,000, and many addicts need at least two grams a day.
So when Touseef Raza (name changed), a 25-year-old taxi driver in Kulgam district, started spending Rs. 6,000 a day on heroin, his daily earnings of Rs. 2,000 fell short. He began borrowing from unsuspecting sober friends, and by lying to his addict friends that he needed money for a surgery. With the over Rs. 1 lakh he managed to collect, he started injecting himself with heroin.
Touseef had started taking drugs because his friends were using them. “So I thought of giving it a try as well. Soon, I found myself getting addicted. The day I couldn’t find drugs, I would beat my wife,” he recalls. “I took heroin for three years and my health deteriorated. I started feeling nauseous and had severe muscle pain. My wife brought me to SMHS Hospital, and since then I am under treatment.”
Patients arriving at the De-Addiction Centre’s OPD are evaluated by psychiatrists and given a drug test. The more severe cases are admitted to the hospital for counselling and therapy. “After a week, when we evaluate the symptoms and find that he is responding to the treatment, we discharge him," says Dr. Iqra Shah, a doctor in the Department of Psychiatry at the Government Medical College in Srinagar.
The doctors treat drug withdrawal with medication."Once you stop taking drugs , you will feel extreme sweating, shivering, nausea, insomnia, muscle pain and body ache,” says Dr. Yousuf. Several patients who became manic because of drug addiction have been admitted to IMHANS, adds Dr. Hussain.
There are female drug addicts in Kashmir too, but they are not treated at the De-addiction Centre in Srinagar. “There are cases where girls too take heroin and other drugs, but their numbers are less. Since we don’t have a facility for them, we treat them in the OPD and ask their parents to take care of them,” says Dr. Yousuf. The doctors advise parents on handling their child, counsel them about drug abuse, and ask them to ensure that their child takes medicines on time and is not isolated.
Until December 2019, the De-addiction Centre in Srinagar was the only such facility in Kashmir. It is managed by 63 staffers associated with IMHANS, including 20 psychiatrists, six clinical psychologists, 21 resident doctors, and 16 research students of clinical psychology. The government has launched three more de-addiction centres in the state this year, in Baramulla, Kathua and Anantnag, says Dr. Hussain, and psychiatrists at district hospitals have started attending to drug addicts in their OPDs.
Crime Branch officials in Kashmir say that since 2016 more consignments of charas, brown sugar and other drugs started coming from across the Line of Control. (No one is willing to speak much or go on record about the reasons.) Drug seizures have increased as a result. The Jammu and Kashmir Police’s Crime Gazette of 2018 cites that nearly 22 kilos of heroin was seized that year. Besides heroin, police also confiscated 248.150 kilos of charas and around 20 kilos of brown sugar.
Press releases put out regularly by the police claim that thousands of acres of poppy crop – the source of opiates and heroin – have been destroyed across Kashmir and drug peddlers arrested. But the problem continues on the ground. Muneeb Ismail (name changed), a 17-year-old mechanic from Rohmu in Pulwama district, says, “In my area, heroin is available like cigarettes. I don’t have to try hard to get it.” Other addicts at the De-addiction Centre confirm that it is easy to procure drugs. The dealers, who are locals, peddle by word of mouth. They lure young men (and women) into addiction by first giving them free smokes and then selling the drugs once they are hooked.
In one area in south Kashmir, for example, addicts openly visit the house of a dealer to use drugs there, says a psychiatrist at the De-addiction Centre, requesting anonymity. “They told me that even the police know about this house, but they don’t do anything about it,” he says. Other such houses exist across the Valley. (The cover photo shows an addict strolling outside a house in Budgam, after a smoke.)
However, Haseeb Mughal, Senior Superintendent of Police, Srinagar, maintains that drug addiction is a medical problem. “It has to be treated by doctors. More and more de-addiction centres should come up in Kashmir to control drug abuse,” he said in an interview to this reporter.
In June 2019, the state government finalised the first-ever drug de-addiction policy for Jammu and Kashmir after inviting public feedback. It is being implemented in phases. Noting the steep rise in substance-use disorders in J&K over the past two decades, the document says, “Studies conducted in recent years have shown an alarming shift in the pattern of substance use in terms of rise in the number of female users, decreasing age at first-use, increasing use of solvents, injectable opiates as well as increasing drug related deaths (over-dose and accidents).”
The policy lists 14 state agencies, including government medical colleges, the police, the Intelligence Wing, the Narcotics Control Bureau, the Directorate of Health Services and the AIDS Control Society, as well as non-governmental organisations working on de-addiction, as central to controlling substance abuse.
The involvement of faith-based organisations and schools in addressing the problem has also been sought. After the suspected drug-related death of a youth in a toilet in Srinagar in June 2019, Deputy Commissioner Shahid Iqbal Choudhary urged religious preachers of mosques to “speak loudly against rising drug-addiction menace.” In a sermon following the incident, Hurriyat leader and the head priest of Srinagar’s Jama Masjid, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, said that the large number of youth getting drawn to drugs is alarming. “Easy money and easy availability, parental unawareness and inaction by law enforcing agencies are all contributing," Farooq said. "We need to work on all these fronts to overcome this menace.”
But for now, the ‘menace’ prevails, and many families like Azlan’s, who is still locked up at home, have been trying hard to bring their sons back on track. "I have spent weeks at the De-addiction Centre when Azlan was admitted there," says Bashir. "Now, too, I have to leave work to come home and see if Azlan is fine. I am drained financially as well as physically. Azlan's addiction has bent my back."