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Red-eyed, lost young men in Bihar’s Seemanchal show how Nitish Kumar’s alcohol ban backfired

In Bihar, the focus is still on curbing alcohol. But there’s a problem Nitish Kumar didn’t see coming – drug addicts, crime and a new ‘Generation Nowhere’.

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Purnea/Katihar/Araria/Kishanganj: In mango orchards, closed school buildings, abandoned historical sites, dark city lanes, and even cremation grounds, one can spot red-eyed, thin, lost young men. They pick fights, snatch mobile phones or gold chains, some even steal hand-pumps.

In eastern Bihar, primarily the Seemanchal region that runs along the Nepal border, everyone talks about these young men.

Ever since the Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United) government banned liquor in 2016, drug use has gone up among young Biharis. Heroin, ganja, charas, intravenous drugs have been the refuge of addicts in the state. An UDAYA study found that consumption was higher among rural boys (21 per cent) in Bihar than urban ones (17 per cent). Police in Seemanchal’s districts say petty crimes have also risen, as have the recovery of drugs, phones and cough syrup bottles.

And yet, nobody seems to be doing anything about it. Economically poor and socially backward, Seemanchal sends its sons to Delhi, Kolkata, and other big cities for better education and jobs each year. Some leave as migrant workers and some as government job seekers. But when the nationwide lockdown was announced in 2020, the young returned with no jobs and no work. With them, entered different types of addiction, drugs and boredom.

In the fourth dispatch in our ‘Generation Nowhere’ series, ThePrint uncovers the ugly side of drug addiction among the youth in Bihar’s Seemanchal.

Two young boys doing heroin in a closed building in Katihar | By Special Arrangement

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A married man, a student, a job seeker

After the first lockdown, when many young migrant workers, government job aspirants, and college students returned to Bihar, they also brought a culture of addiction with them. Proximity to Nepal and Bengal borders helped Bihar’s drug culture flourish within a span of just two years.

Utkarsh Kumar, an 18-year-old from Katihar, became unmanageable towards the end of 2021. He would pick fights with his parents, break things and skip meals. Along with his pocket money, which had to be increased from Rs 200 to Rs 500 daily, his friend circle also widened. He started with a cigarette and ended up at ganja (marijuana). His family tried everything — shaming him publicly, emotionally blackmailing him, and even taking him to the few doctors available in town. But a turning point for the family came when he refused to appear for his 12th board exams last year. That led to his parents discovering that their son had become a heroin addict. As of March 2022, Utkarsh is registered as one of the youngest addicts in a de-addiction centre in the Purnea district, where ThePrint met him.

Utkarsh’s parents in Katihar | Jyoti Yadav/ThePrint

Sitting with 60 other addicts (as young as 18 and as old as 60), Utkarsh simply wants to flee. The rehab has way too many restrictions, he thinks.

Hemraj Bharti, 23, a Khalsa College graduate and a Staff Selection Commission (SSC) aspirant, who lived in Delhi’s Mukherjee Nagar for years, is another addict here. A resident of Araria’s Forbesganj, he occasionally drank alcohol during his college days. After the first national lockdown was announced, he found himself returning to his village along with many others.

“Ten of us from this region were sent to Delhi in 2016 for higher studies and to prepare for government jobs. We started drinking alcohol, but all hell broke loose after the nationwide lockdown. We had never heard of ‘smack’ (heroin) being available in our area when we left, but when we returned to our villages, there was a network of addicts and peddlers flourishing,” he said. Bharti talked about his friend from Kishanganj who now works at a medicine shop so that he can continue to get his daily dose of drugs.

Another aspirant, Shubham Kumar, a 27-year-old who hails from the Line Bazar area of Purnea town, is preparing for the BPSC (Bihar Public Service Commission) exam. The BPSC fills vacancies in the state administration of Bihar. Shubham started smoking ganja while preparing for BPSC exam. After three failed attempts in SSC-CGL, he changed his mind and returned home in 2019.

“Durga Puja festivities were going on, everyone was having fun. Some friends told me to smoke, they said nothing will happen,” Shubham said, tracing the start of his addiction.

His family got him married seven months ago.

“My family thought if they force me to get married, I won’t be an addict anymore,” he explained. He wants to sit for this year’s BPSC exam.

Shubham claims that at least 25 people in his friend group are addicts, Utkarsh says he knows five close friends, and Hemraj knows 10. Most of them are either school or college students or government job aspirants.


Also read: Unemployment and unlimited data pack — UP’s youth are neither angry nor idle


One de-addiction centre for one crore people

Seemanchal in Bihar comprises Purnea, Araria, Katihar, and Kishanganj. According to the 2011 census, around one crore people live in the region. Out of which, around 25 lakh were in the age group of 15 to 24.

In 2016, the Bihar government set up de-addiction centres for liquor addicts in each of its district hospitals. ThePrint visited all the four government de-addiction centres in Seemanchal, only to find them closed.

The non-functional government de-addiction centre in Araria | Jyoti Yadav/ThePrint

“Due to Covid, the OPD and other services were shut down. Before that, fewer addicts approached the de-addiction centres,” explains Kishanganj’s district hospital accountant Bhairav Kumar Jha.

In the absence of any government help, people from this region go to either Jharkhand’s Ranchi or West Bengal’s Siliguri for treatment. Things changed a bit when a former addict from Purnea opened a de-addiction centre in his house.

Preetam Anand, 31, was one of the isolated cases of drug addiction a decade ago.

“Back then, one would have to travel to either Nepal or Dalkhola in Bengal to get heroin, it was not easily available here,” he told ThePrint.

Like thousands of others, his father, now a retired policeman, sent him for higher education in Delhi. Preetam even landed a job after college. But he returned to Purnea when his mother died of cancer.

“Unable to cope with the grief, I turned to drugs and would blame my father for it,” he added.

Preetam Anand in his office | Jyoti Yadav/ThePrint

When his addiction became worse, Preetam’s father planned to send him to a ‘mental asylum’ in Jharkhand out of shame. But one of his sisters insisted that he should be sent to Siliguri for rehabilitation.

“I stayed there for six years. First as a drug addict and then as a volunteer. I am now pursuing an MA in social work from IGNOU and have a certificate from the National Institute of Social Defence, New Delhi. I also did a counselling course,” Preetam said.

Once back, he registered an NGO called Anand Foundation in 2019. In early 2020, he set up a de-addiction centre in the Ramnagar area of Purnea. The centre is for alcohol, heroin, ‘brown sugar’, ganja, bhang, charas, Dendrite, whitener, tablet, injection and cough syrup addicts. With two dormitories, one classroom, one reception, the centre functions with limited resources. And it is already overcrowded. The majority of the addicts are between 22 and 28 and hail from Araria, Purnea, and Katihar districts. The centre’s wall is painted with motivational quotes and the main gate always remains locked because the young addicts try to flee often.

The rehab course is for 4-5 months with an admission fee of Rs 6,000 and a monthly fee of Rs 10,000.

Patients in Preetam Anand’s private de-addiction centre in Purnea | Jyoti Yadav/ThePrint

“If the addict is a relapse case, then there is a discount, and for poor families, we reduce the fees to Rs 5,000-6,000,” Preetam said.

The Bihar government requires registered rehabilitation centres to have adequate manpower, counselling, detoxification, ‘whole person recovery’, referral, follow-up and after-care services, and provide support to the addict’s family. The government makes it a point to mention that ‘inmates’ be given quality food.

Preetam’s rehab does not have a psychologist or psychiatrist, but he believes his degrees in social work and personal experience as a former addict gives him an edge over others. There is a prescribed food menu for the addicts along with a strict daily schedule that includes meditation and yoga classes. Mobile phones are not allowed and a monthly meeting with parents is mandatory.


Also read: Awareness, not prohibition is the solution to consumption of spurious liquor in Bihar


Escape, thrill, and a way out of boredom 

Across Seemanchal, you will find posters and graffiti staring at you. Written warnings that say, “Madyapan virajit hai”, liquor is prohibited, but the focus has not yet shifted to drug abuse. This explains why Nitish Kumar’s government is yet to acknowledge the drug addiction problem — all awareness campaigns, marathons, and community police initiatives are still about alcohol.

Common awareness posters and writings against liquor consumption found all over Bihar | Jyoti Yadav/ThePrint

Suharsh Bhardwaj, 22, from Katihar was an average student and passed college with a second division. But he was a sincere student.

“He used to help his father in the electric shop,” a teary eyed mother told ThePrint. In 2020, Suharsh turned to drugs. Like many others, he was looking for an escape. He got ‘bored at home’ in the lockdown and started doing drugs to ‘look cool’ in front of his peers.

“Unlike alcohol, there is no smell or bottle. One can easily escape the police,” said Suharsh.

Many families and addicts believe that liquor prohibition is one of the main factors behind the youth turning to hard drugs.

“If there was no liquor ban, then we would have had alcohol once in a while,” Purushottam Jha, a former drug addict, explained.

Both Utkarsh and Suharsh’s families’ claim that prohibition triggered drug addiction in the young in Seemanchal were corroborated by government officials.

Purushottam Jha, a former addict | Jyoti Yadav/ThePrint

Also read: How a heroin racket linking Afghanistan, Pakistan to India’s Punjab, UP & Tamil Nadu was busted


Rural India between ‘maaza’ and ‘badmashi’

It’s not like the addiction fire in Seemanchal has spared smaller villages. Some peddlers, on the condition of anonymity, told ThePrint that after the lockdown they had to return to their villages and the heroin travelled with them.

Ajeet Kumar, 19, hails from one of the most backward blocks of Purnea, Baisi. His village Maala has become a hotspot. At least 200 young people consume drugs, he claims, and not everybody is seeking medical help.

Ajeet belongs to a poor family. His elder brother and father work at a jewellery shop on a daily wage. His mother takes care of the house. For Ajeet, it all started with ganja, then beer, then heroin. Just like Utkarsh, he also did not appear for his board exams.

“We also feel like bunking school like our friends. The ‘maaza’ (fun) comes from being high and doing ‘badmashi’,” he said, explaining what lured him into drugs. “Till there was ganja in my life, it was all fine.”

Badmashi’ for the youth in eastern Bihar now means getting high, strolling on a bike, hitting someone and creating a scene.

The peddlers in villages offer free ganja at the beginning, but as you slowly start coming back for it, the price increases and other drugs are introduced. One pudia of heroin is usually available for Rs 300, but if an addict requires it urgently, then the rate goes up to Rs 500. One pudia contains less than a gram of heroin.

Soon, Ajeet was close to dying of an overdose.

“You start wanting drugs at any cost. I needed 15 pudia a day. So, at first, I would take money from home, but my family got to know about the heroin. Then I started swindling others and taking loans, I never returned the money — I think I owe about Rs 2-3 lakh,” said Ajeet. He also confessed to stealing phones and bikes.

He said that if he hadn’t been admitted to the de-addiction centre, he would have died in 15-20 days. His body stopped functioning without heroin and Ajeet could not even walk for five minutes when sober.

A poster in Purnea’s private de-addiction centre | Jyoti Yadav/ThePrint

Also read: Licensed to torture: How drug rehabs in Himachal use beatings to ‘treat’ addicts


Cough syrup, heroin start showing up at police stations

Mobile snatching, chain snatching, bike theft and shop theft are rampant in Seemanchal. Even handpumps at government buildings are not spared. The districts are seeing a surge in petty crimes, mostly committed by young people. ThePrint got hold of the crime details from police officials.

Purnea registered 15 cases under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act in 2019, but the number rose to 71 in 2021. The recovery of heroin also increased from 1.82 gram in 2019 to 1.8 kg in 2021. The number of thefts in the district increased from 894 in 2019 to 1,024 in 2021.

Things are not much different in the adjoining districts— Araria, Katihar, and Kishanganj.

For example, in 2019, there was no heroin recovery by Araria police, but in 2021, it recovered 11.8 kg. Confiscated cough syrup bottles increased from 120 in 2019 to 2,962 bottles in 2021. For Kishanganj, heroin recovery in 2019 was 18.31 gram but the number increased to 1.36 kg in 2021. Katihar did not seize heroin in 2021, but the amount of ganja confiscated increased from 5 kg in 2019 to more than 358 kg in 2021.

Kishanganj’s SP Enam Ul Haq told ThePrint: “We are not putting criminal charges against the young people who get involved in stealing government infrastructure. We have enrolled private agencies to train them and later link them to private employment.”

Purnea District Magistrate Rahul Kumar has started Kitaabdan Abhiyan to attract youth to libraries and provide a public institution where they can go and sit for hours.

But Nitish Kumar has a problem in his hands, one he didn’t see ballooning when he prohibited alcohol in Bihar.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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