Father John Felix Raj, S.J, vice-chancellor of St. Xavier’s University, Kolkata (SXUK) was honoured with the JHEASA Magis 2024 award on Saturday at St. Xavier’s College at the National Jesuit Higher Education conference.
The Himachal Pradesh Nasha Nivaran Board’s Convenercum-Advisor OM PRAKASH SHARMA, who is also a Specialist Consultant with the United Nation’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), South Asia, for capacity building, is credited with waging a remarkably focused campaign against narcotics.
A member of the Institute of Narcotic Studies and Analysis (INSA), Delhi, Sharma, 55, has been voluntarily working on alternative development models in HP to get people away from cultivation of cannabis and opium.
During his stint with the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) at Chandigarh as a senior official from 2003 to 2007, when he handled Punjab, Chandigarh, J&K and Himachal Pradesh, Sharma directly supervised several drug seizures besides overseeing cannabis and opium destruction operations in Kullu and Mandi districts.
He had then been instrumental in seizing major consignments of drugs being routed through Punjab from Afghanistan and Pakistan and from HP by foreigners.
In an interview with ARCHANA PHULL, Sharma spoke on various issues related to the drug menace in the northern region of the country.
Q. What is your take on the drug scenario in Himachal Pradesh?
A. HP is facing serious challenges associated with the drug menace such as illicit production of charas and opium, diversion of prescription drugs (psychotropic drugs) and illicit trafficking into and from the state. The hill state is troubled by increasing drug abuse and dependency. Another challenge is treatment management of addicts and their social reintegration.
Q. How is the drug problem in HP different from neighbouring states of Punjab,Haryana or Delhi?
A. Like other hill areas such as J&K, Uttarakhand and the North East, Himachal has a problem of illicit cultivation of cannabis and opium, which had traditional linkages too. The state is facing the challenge of criminal networks of foreign origin engaged in peddling of cannabis. Inter-state level opium trafficking is another challenge. So this is an additional problem in HP compared to Punjab, Haryana or Delhi, where drug storage, trafficking and drug abuse are the main issues.
Q. What should be the immediate concern of HP with regard to drug menace?
A. The immediate concern in HP is illicit drug trafficking and consumption of opioids (Chitta) and psychotropic substances like Tramadol as this is making the youth dependent. Further it is also pushing youngsters into criminal, anti-social activities. HP needs to focus on an ultra-modern intelligence and analytics mechanism supplemented by dedicated law enforcement and development.
The recent trends emerging from the increasing number of drug seizures in Himachal are indicative of serious involvement of young people in drug consumption and trafficking. This is resulting in disintegration of the socio-economic fabric of the state. As per data of drug seizures in HP, nearly 75 per cent of the accused fall within the age bracket of 15-40 years, many of whom are also drug users.
Q. Is it more difficult to handle the drug issue in HP, given the current scenario?
A. I don’t think so. The detailed analysis of drug situation can be done only after official surveys are conducted on the extent and pattern. Based on this, the government can formulate a multi-pronged strategy with a holistic approach. There have been isolated efforts in the past.
The strategy, however, has to be practical, sustainable, continuous and simultaneous at all levels in a Mission Mode. An empirical estimation of the entire problem is available and we have already started working on it. Himachal Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur has given strong indications to deal with the situation sternly.
Q. You have worked with NCB in the region. How can the drug issue be tackled at the regional level?
A. Drug menace is a multidimensional problem and the states are dependent on each other. So, every state has a role to play to check trafficking. The coordination of all central and state intelligence agencies, law enforcement agencies, and inter-chief ministerial cooperation is pivotal to address the problem.
The HP chief minister took a historic step in bringing together the chief ministers of the neighbouring states for analysis and information sharing. We need to move ahead on this aspect.
Q. So far no other state has a NashaNivaran Board.What was the purpose of setting up this Board in HP?
A. The process of constituting HP NashaNivaran Board had started in 2017 itself and it was set up in January 2020 to establish synergy and cooperation among responsible governmental agencies and to monitor action taken on targets set for all line agencies to check the drug menace. The present government has accorded top priority to the issue of drugs. The Board also has a mandate to suggest policy measures for different types of initiatives focusing on all the aspects of drug menace.
Q. What difference has the NashaNivaran Board made in one year in HP?
A. The Covid-19 pandemic overshadowed the year 2020. Still the Board has been able to coordinate with authorities in most of the drug-affected districts in HP. A survey was conducted on de-addiction centers, besides one study on the extent of drug abuse in a particular belt of Mandi district.
A field visit of 50 vulnerable Panchayats in Chamba district was undertaken and elected representatives in Panchayati Raj Institution (PRI) were sensitised in Tissa, Pangi and Salooni areas. The Board convened a capacity building programme for police and excise officers through UNODC, regional office of South Asia, wherein two-day training on drug law enforcement was held and associated issues of national and global importance were discussed.
As per Board’s decision, the HP government is creating a State Fund for Control of Drug Abuse (SFCDA), which is the first such initiative in the country. The Board is also in the process of framing its own drug prevention policy, considering local socio-economic factors.
Q. Do you think that the state lacks facilities for drug de-addiction and rehabilitation?
A. To some extent this is correct. There are nearly 65 de-addiction centres run by NGOs and private people. There are very few such centres under the central scheme known as Integrated Rehabilitation Centres for Addicts. A survey indicates that most of the de-addiction centres in Himachal lack facilities for rehabilitation and social integration.
They only have de-addiction treatment and counselling facilities, without 24×7 supervision and support of psychiatrists. The government is however shortly going to establish eight deaddiction centres with rehabilitation facilities, including one model centre under the aegis of HP State Mental Health Authority.