SUBSTANCE abuse includes much more than just drugs. It means addiction to alcohol, tobacco and a host of other intoxicants. Manipur, Nagaland and Mizoram are known as the three states where substance abuse is rampant. But these days Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam too have become the drugs trails of the region. I recall visiting Kakopathar, near Tinsukia in Assam, in 2002 to be part of a programme called “Kani mukth” or freedom from opium. In Kakopathar and the villages adjoining Arunachal Pradesh, opium is consumed by male members of the family. They easily spend about Rs 100 a day. This means that a large part of the earnings go to feed an addiction. To keep the home fires burning, the women are seen struggling, either weaving or setting up little tuck shops where they earn not more than Rs 100-150 on a good day.
Poverty is written in the faces of the villagers. Things are made worse by the fact that the villages are pitch dark. They have not yet been electrified although they are so close to the industrial town of Tinsukia. We had a sort of ritual where the villagers got together in the evening after they had all returned from their fields. We had to make do with bamboo torches lit with kerosene. The men shared their stories about how they got hooked to kani. They said at first they used it in small quantities to rid themselves of fever, stomach cramps, malaria, coughs, etc, but soon became addicted to it. The kani users looked pale and unhealthy and the women said they did not have the muscular strength to work in the fields. It was a vicious cycle. They would fall sick and instead of going to a doctor they would take opium to bring down the fever or get rid of the dysentery or diarrhoea.
They knew the habit was eating them up yet it was such a challenge to quit. They did, however, take an oath that evening to give up kani. Many burnt their little opium containers and their special pipes for inhaling the fumes. I did revisit the place a few years later only to be told that things were pretty much the same because the social and economic circumstances had not changed. Those dealing with addiction and rehabilitation know what a tortuous route it is to take a person through the detoxification process. Obviously these villagers need that. Just a desire from their side cannot overcome the yearnings of the body.
It was the British who first introduced opium to the rebellious tribes of the North-eastern states to keep them under control. The tribes launched regular raids into the plains of present Assam, thereby prompting the British to put in place the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation Act of 1873 to keep these marauders off the British-controlled areas of the North-east as it was then: a land occupied by different hill tribes without a sense of nationhood. They regularly engaged in inter-tribal warfare and the Nagas were known to be head-hunters.
During my visit to Saikul in Manipur&’s Senapati district, inhabited largely by Kukis, I was quite surprised at the activity that elderly men and women were engaged in. They had just harvested the marijuana (ganja) stalks of leaves and were tying them up neatly together. They would then put the bundles up on the rooftop to dry. An elderly Kuki leader told me that these packets were collected from their doorsteps by buyers. They fetched a good price and provide stable livelihoods. Asked if the authorities were aware of this “business”, he said that if anyone were to tell them to stop marijuana cultivation then they would have to introduce some other form of agriculture. In the interim that was how they were earning their livelihoods.
Obviously this marijuana found its way to Myanmar via Moreh and to other parts of India as well. I am sure the Manipur authorities are aware of this trade and its routes. Ganja is consumed by young people in the North-east because it is relatively cheaper than heroin and easier to buy. Every little paan shop owner has his regular stream of customers. But he will not sell it to anyone and everyone.
Ganja gives them a temporary high and may not be as potent as heroin and other psychotropic drugs and anti-spasmodics such as Spasmoproxyvon, which is the drug of choice of most young people if they are looking at a more enduring “high”. It is so common to see discarded packets of Spasmoproxyvon by the roadside in every part of this region. Cough syrup too is another substance abused by younger addicts and so is Dendrite, an adhesive that even smaller children, particularly those on the street, are wont to sniff.
The recent drugs hail in Manipur has unearthed a regular cartel involving higher-ups in the Assam Rifles and influential people from political families. The drugs worth about Rs 24 crore, seized on 24 February at Pallel (Thoubal district), comprised anti-cold strips of Actidin, Respifed, Omkop, Hilcold and Polyfed, which contain the chemicals ephedrine and pseudoephidrine.
Knowledgeable sources claim that the chemicals in these drugs are easily extracted and mixed with other ingredients like salt, household cleaning products, and lithium from batteries to produce ‘”yaba” tablets. These are much-sought-after drugs in South and East Asia with the point of origin being Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia and India&’s North-east. Many believe that Manipur is the hub for drugs smuggling from the Golden Triangle (Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia) to India and elsewhere.
Drug addiction has serious implications for every society. At the moment there are more than 100,000 people living with HIV in the North-east. Most of them are injecting drug-users who share needles, which is how the virus is spread. The more tragic circumstances are those where women are inflicted with HIV by their male partners or husbands and conceive a child who also carries the virus. Today, this is a scourge that the region has to deal with apart from the multiple problems that confront it, such as militancy, extortion, violence and corruption in high places. There have been noble attempts by several agencies, including the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, to reduce the multiple impacts of drug addiction by coming out with drop in centres, etc, where addicts can pick up needles and drop the used ones. While some feel that this encourages addiction, others say that it is a harm-reduction strategy until the addict is weaned away from his/her habit.
But what could be the possible reasons for substance abuse in the North-east? Among all hill tribes, alcohol brewed locally by using rice or other forms of fruits or vegetables is part of social drinking. Alcohol is part of most of our indigenous ceremonies, from marriages to naming a child. With the coming of Christianity, however, alcohol was condemned to be a witches’ brew responsible for all the ills of society. A rather simplistic conclusion if ever there was one. The Christian missionaries were able to influence the tribals to consider alcohol as taboo and to ban it completely from their lives. Mizoram and Nagaland, known euphemistically as Christian states, went for a complete ban on alcohol. So did Manipur. But banning alcohol did not necessarily make it disappear from people&’s closets completely. Indian-made foreign liquor continues to be smuggled and those who engage in this illicit trade make millions. It&’s a classic case of bootlegging supplanting the legal sale of alcohol.
Sadly, banning alcohol and a strident form of Christianity has now turned the youth to drugs. So many have perished on account of this plague. Several others live lives of quiet desperation, moving around like the living dead with only skin and bones and just waiting for death to claim their souls. Their bodies are already dead. And in the midst of this trauma, there are societies like those in Meghalaya which are still in denial about the extent of the problem. Drug addiction will become the biggest challenge for the region and the country even as the best and brightest succumb to this modern scourge.
The writer is editor, The Shillong Times, and can be reached at