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Young Delhi in a haze

Updated on: Jul 14, 2017
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More than half the children in Seemapuri, an impoverished corner of the Capital, have admitted to drug abuse. The spiralling crime rate has finally pushed the authorities to act

The bylanes of Seemapuri, in northeast Delhi, are far removed from the beautiful expansive roads elsewhere in the Capital. There aren’t any of the magnificent mansions, community parks or gated colonies here. Most people live in slum dwellings and the area has unofficially become a settlement of ragpickers — people without votes, and hence who don’t matter. The added worry today is drug addiction, which is pushing many of their children to crime.

According to a recent study by Unesco-affiliated NGO Society for Promotion of Youth and Masses (SPYM), more than half the children in Seemapuri admitted to drug abuse, and more than 70 per cent knew other children who did. They buy prescription drugs such as avil and dizapham from local pharmacies, a range of veterinary injections, and a local drug called silochan from some of the scrap dealers, besides the several mobile drug shops run out of rickshaws in the evenings, the report said. The most commonly abused are inhalants in the form of glue, thinner, rubber adhesive and tar pin oil, which are easily available at ₹50 each. The injections, primarily meant for animals, sell at ₹35 each, smack (heroin) costs ₹400 for a puriya (small packet), ganja (marijuana) ₹200. At night, customers arrive — some in their Audis and Mercs — from other parts of the city to score here.

A drug bust in February exposed a Bareilly-based gang as the supplier to nearly 2,000 locals. Of the 18 drug users apprehended during the raid, three were minors. Worried about the rising involvement of Seemapuri children in crime, principal district magistrate Arun Verma ordered a survey by SPYM. The report, submitted to the juvenile justice board last month, opened a can of worms.

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A costly escape

Shibendu Bhattacharjee, an SPYM member involved with the study, explained the seriousness of the issue. “Smack and inhalants usage is very common among the children. Parks in Seemapuri have become dumping ground for garbage. The stench is unimaginable. Families living there are engaged en masse in ragpicking and garbage segregation. Some take drugs to cope with the stench of the garbage they segregate. A smack addict needs at least ₹1,500 a day to keep up his habit, so they often resort to crime to meet this need.”

SPYM runs a drug de-addiction centre together with the Delhi state government where Bhattacharjee works with the juveniles. Raju is a former inmate and currently a peer educator at this centre, which is housed in Sewa Kutir at Kingsway Camp, on the same campus as the juvenile justice board. “I used to live a life worse than a street dog. Mine was the usual story... I didn’t enjoy school, all my focus was on running the family’s meat shop. My classmates introduced me to beedis, which we stole from the guard in school. Later, my dependence on drugs — inhalants and smack — saw me indulge in petty crime. I would steal laptops, or pick pockets,” Raju recalls.

Petty crime soon led to more serious ones, as Raju became entangled with gang culture. “My life became about drugs and fast money. I got arrested after we broke someone’s skull and grazed his neck during a crime.” That life is behind him now. A salaried employee at the centre, he cooks for 150-300 people, besides training the juveniles who have joined the centre. He recently bought a bike, which he loves. “No one wants to run away from this centre. There is no heavy police security stopping them. They have a positive environment here, they see new hope, another chance at life,” he says.

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Abuse begins at home

Dr Anju Dhawan, head of psychiatry at AIIMS Delhi, says the prevalence of drug abuse among street children varies from 30 per cent to 70 per cent in different parts of the city. Dhawan was part of a survey team instituted by the Delhi state Women and Child Development department to determine the incidence of drug and substance abuse among street children aged 5-14. The causes are all too familiar. As she explains, “It is very easy for them to procure tobacco or cigarettes and beedis. They also manage to get hold of alcohol very easily, especially beer.”

A police investigation found that the gang peddling smack specifically targets small children. The police had seized smack worth ₹7.2 lakh during the February raid, and the main supplier remains elusive. The investigation also revealed that the parents knew their children were consuming drugs. Additionally, during SPYM’s Seemapuri survey, 40 per cent of children reported that their parents consumed drugs. “Every household in that area has a drug addict. Private de-addiction centres and rehabs cost nearly ₹15,000 a month, something that the families in this area cannot afford,” Bhattacharjee says. And even when they do get admitted to these centres, cases of runaway patients are very common. As there is no government regulation, the private players often run these centres as they please, he adds.

Rehabilitation remains a key lacuna. With no opportunities to acquire new skills or an alternative way of life, they often relapse into addiction once they leave the centre.

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A drug-free haven

At the AIIMS-run National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh, patients queue up in hordes. An entire ward is dedicated to street children and managed by Dhawan. The sprawling, lush-green facility is a temporary haven for a section of children deprived of a safe, drug-free childhood.

Dhawan believes that cutting the source of drugs is only a temporary solution. “It doesn’t help in the long term to just bust drug rackets, as the children who are dependent on the drugs will seek out alternative sources. They need to be cared for more intensively, provided with basic needs such as education, awareness, food, security and shelter, to stop an entire generation from wasting away.”

Bhattacharjee, too, points out that left untreated, the drug menace among children is a burden on the police, judiciary and civil society. “Many kids (about 25 per cent of the 90 children at SPYM) have tested HIV+,” he says.

At the centre, the Hindi alphabet and its word associations have been pasted as cheerful art on the wall. Called the nasha varnmala (drug alphabet), it reflects these children’s frightening world, and their preoccupations. It reads: kh se khaansi (cough), g se gutka, j se jail, jh se jhaag (foaming mouth), ph se fluid, chh se chheentai (snatching), b se bandook (gun), shh se shaaraab (alcohol), y se yaar (friends), m se maut (death).

Compared to adults with long years of addiction, children can be treated more easily as their dependence is more recent and of shorter duration, usually 2-4 years. The first ten days of withdrawal are the worst, as they go cold turkey with headaches, pain and depression. TB remains a serious threat for the children. It is important, at this stage, to introduce them to a healthier life.

“Our programmes are designed to help them interact with one another, learn from each other. They are, most importantly, self-managed through a bal panchayat system that we have instituted, under which they redress each other’s grievances. We have peer educators, former members of the facility, who have graduated and joined us as employees. They give the newer inmates hope. Once a week, we provide them a safe space to freely express their emotions. For instance, at the latest session, a young child mentioned his urge to pick up a knife, kill the guard and run away... it’s something that he has fought against at times,” says Bhattacharjee. He adds that it is important to treat them as children first, and not criminals, to bring about a lasting transformation in them.

Meanwhile, following the SPYM’s report, the juvenile justice board has directed the Delhi state government to look into the issue of juvenile drug abuse on a priority basis.

Countrywide, according to the National Sample Survey Organisation of India, annually there are two million new users of tobacco in the 10-14 age group. India has one of the largest street children populations in the world, and according to the NSSO report, two in five children are victims of assault, violence and abuse on the street. The two issues are certainly not unrelated. “Drugs is the third-biggest business in the world, after arms and oil. If we aren’t careful, we could end up becoming the youngest nation of drug addicts in the world,” cautions Bhattacharjee.

Published on January 11, 2018

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