Srinagar: S*, a 23-year-old Kashmiri, trying to beat a three-year-long heroin addiction for the third time, sat with his legs crossed, looking down, unwilling to make eye contact when Article 14 met him at the main rehabilitation facility here in the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K).
When we spoke to him at the Institute of Mental Health and Neuroscience at the Government Medical College, his pale face and yellow eyes betrayed the severity of Hepatitis C he had contracted from sharing a needle with his friend. Both his arms were scarred.
S’s descent into heroin, an opioid drug made from morphine, started in 2019 when he was a class-11 student in a government school in south Kashmir.
“If you look at my previous pictures, you would see how healthy I used to be,” he said. “It is not just an addiction but a deadly virus and extremely difficult to overcome. I have grown so weak. I want to leave this life behind me.”
As Unemployment Soars, So Does Drug Abuse
Experts said the pattern of drug use in Jammu and Kashmir—one of the most heavily militarised conflict zones in the world—has assumed “alarming proportions” since 2019, a period marked by social and political upheaval after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government abrogated J&K’s autonomy and demoted it to a union territory.
The rising pattern of drug use, said experts, was largely apparent among young people in J&K, which, apart from conflict, suffers one of India’s highest unemployment rates.
In May 2022, Article 14 reported how chemistry graduates and taxi drivers working at construction sites were a manifestation of its unemployment rate—at 25% in March 2022 almost three times the national average. More than a million are not even looking for jobs, thousands of which were lost by the revocation of the region’s special constitutional status, a security crackdown and Covid-19.
On 24 April 2022, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while announcing an investment of about Rs 20,000 crore, promised an end to the “miseries” of the youth of J&K. “I want to tell the youth of J&K to have faith in my words,” said Modi. “You will not see the miseries witnessed by your parents and grandparents.”
The youth of Kashmir are steeped in their own miseries, apparent at the main rehabilitation facility in Srinagar, which reported a 2660% increase in patients seeking treatment since 2016, primarily for heroin addiction. According to news reports, the number of 489 patients registered at IMHANS in 2016 increased to 7,420 in 2019. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the number fell by nearly half to 3,536 in 2020. In 2021, the number of patients rose to 13,500.
A report by the National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre (NDDTC) of the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences in February 2019 said that 600,000 people in J&K were consuming drugs, close to 5% of the total population. The report said 4.91% of the population use opioids, and 0.62% depend on them.
The “quantum of work”, defined in the report “as a combination of the prevalence of harmful use and dependence”—understood as the category of consumption pattern in which the individual requires professional help—in J&K was 1.5%, against a national average of 0.70%.
Fazl-e-Roub, a psychiatrist at IMHANS, said that of the 140-150 patients they receive daily, 95% are heroin addicts, a quantum jump of more than 80% in comparison to the data revealed by a 2015 study by IMHANS that found only 13% of the respondents abused heroin.
A survey by IMHANS across 10 districts of Kashmir found that 2.8% of the population of Kashmir has been substance abusers , with 52,404 currently dependent on drugs, 25% of unemployed youth involved in substance abuse, and addicts spending 88,000 rupees a month procuring heroin, as per a news report published in July.
For opioid use, Mizoram (6.9%), Nagaland (6.5%), Arunachal Pradesh (5.7%), Sikkim (5.1%) Manipur (4%), and Punjab (2.8%) have the highest prevalence in terms of population percentage as per the NDDTC report. More than half of opioid cases are contributed by states such as Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi and Andhra Pradesh owing to their large populations.
Muzaffar Khan, who heads the de-addiction centre of the police control room in Srinagar, and who has treated a heroin patient as young as 13, said that the figures could be much higher in Kashmir.
“People don’t concede about their drug abuse problems easily because there is a lot of stigma attached to it,” said Khan.
Roub said the relapse rate of heroin is usually more than 60% throughout the world. While there was no data on the relapse rate in J&K, anecdotal evidence suggests it is high, primarily because of a missing support system. Once out of rehab, patients get a drug-related stimulus cue—the idea that the drug is easily available—that leads to increased cravings, Roub said.
“Patients usually have to do drug tests on their own. Psychiatric services are usually concentrated in Srinagar. In other districts, we usually have just one psychiatrist available,” he said. “They usually lack family support or have underlying illnesses such as depression, poor mental health.”
Article 14 sought comment on measures to combat drug abuse from deputy inspector general of the central Kashmir range, Sujut Kumar, who told us to speak with senior superintendent of police, Srinagar, Rakesh Balwal, who said he was busy with Muharram preparations. There was no response to a follow-up Whatsapp message.
‘It Is Not That Difficult To Find’
It was not his friends—some of them heroin addicts—who got him addicted but the 60-year-old dealer in his area, who coaxed him into trying heroin for the first time, making him snort the powder from a foil, said S.
As he continued snorting heroin for two years, S’s studies suffered and he failed his class 12 board exam, bringing an end to his education.
When he started driving a truck ferrying goods from Kashmir to Delhi, Punjab and Maharashtra, and sometimes as far as Bengaluru, S would carry heroin with him. If he was running out, S would buy in Punjab.
“I even purchased it once in Maharashtra. We (truckers) had contacts,” he said. “It is not that difficult to find anywhere. More so, here in Kashmir.”.
There were days when he drove his truck under the influence of heroin, S said, estimating that he has spent Rs 30 lakh on his addiction, financed partly by his earnings from driving a truck and taking the rest of the money from his family members who he said were well off. He said that he used to procure a gram of heroin for Rs 3,500, and his dealer would sell heroin worth two or three lakh rupees every day.
His family were oblivious to his addiction for a long time, but they eventually caught on, S recalled.
“When they started seeing me in a different condition every day, they got suspicious and ultimately I had to come clean about my problem,” he said.
It was then that S’s parents forced him to enter rehab, a private clinic in his hometown, where a psychiatrist prescribed medicines to control his urge to consume heroin.
S stopped taking drugs for some time, but after he suffered a relapse before the holy month of Ramzan this year, S attempted rehab again, getting admitted to IMHANS. After he was discharged, his parents kept him locked up for a month to stop him from using heroin.
“I prayed regularly during that time and kept fasts. But a few days after Eid, I jumped from the window and escaped,” he said.
His family could not locate him for three days. Finally, on the fourth day, they found him at his friend’s house and brought him back to IMHANS.
Talking about his relapses, S said that it was easier to control the urge to snort heroin in rehab.
“You know that you won’t get drugs here. So, you condition your mind accordingly. Outside, you just know that a small search and a few enquiries would lead you somewhere,” he said. “That’s when it becomes difficult to stay sober.”
Rich & Poor, Employed & Unemployed
The heroin comes into J&K from Afghanistan via Pakistan, the golden crescent, a name given to the opium-producing countries. As per data from the Narcotics Control Bureau of India, almost 400 kg of heroin were seized in J&K from March 2019 to December 2021.
Yasir Rather, who heads the de-addiction centre at IMHANS, said the social and political upheaval in the past few years in Kashmir, easy availability of drugs, and unemployment made the crisis of drugs much worse.
“It is also a known fact, that wherever there is a socio-political disturbance, mental health issues happen there. Mental health issues and substance abuse have a bidirectional link. Mental health issues can lead to substance abuse and substance abuse can lead to mental health issues,” said Rather.
A 2015 survey conducted by Medecins Sans Frontieres, an international, independent medical humanitarian organisation, reported that nearly 1.8 million adults (45% of the adult population) in Kashmir are “experiencing symptoms of mental distress”, with 41% exhibiting signs of probable depression, 26% likely anxiety and 19% probable post-traumatic stress disorder.
Rather said that drug addicts in Kashmir used to be unemployed and from poor economic backgrounds, but now they were “rich and poor, employed and unemployed”.
‘How I Ended Up Becoming An Addict, I Have No Idea’
J*, a 28-year-old man from Sopore town in north Kashmir’s Baramulla district, working in the hospitality sector in Kashmir, said that he started using heroin in 2016 when he went to Chandigarh to visit his friends.
“It was my friends, who prodded me to try it. Friends are usually the weak link,” said J. “We would try to have fun. How I ended up becoming an addict, I have no idea.”
“Had I known that the Chandigarh trip would prove so disastrous for my family and me, I would have never stepped out of my home,” he said. “But I guess it is already too late.
In 2018, J got a job in a hotel in Chandigarh, compounding his addiction problems. He kept increasing his dosage with time, starting with half a gram of heroin, and going as far as 3.5 gm at a time.
“It was impossible for me to avoid it,” said J. “I have injected 3.5 gm in a single use, multiple times. Such was my craving.”
When he returned to Sopore in 2019, heroin use had picked up in Kashmir, and J said that he would go to Sheeri—25 km away on the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad highway—to procure it.
It wasn't long before his eldest brother also started snorting heroin and the costs rose dramatically, even as they took a Rs 16 lakh loan from a bank and started a business of buying and selling cars. To pay for their drug addiction, J’s brother started diverting the money to buy heroin, buying cars and selling them at a loss until the business went bust and he defaulted on the loan.
Forced to sell the family house to repay the loan, J’s family live in a one-room outhouse in a village outside Sopore.
His brother died of chronic drug abuse in May, J said, adding, “He wanted to come out of this. But he found himself caught in a quagmire.”
While his brother did not go to rehab, J has tried multiple times in Kashmir and Chandigarh. His first time was in a rehab operated by the J&K police in Baramulla from where he escaped in two days.
“I found it incredibly hard,” he said. “It does not let go of you. One would prefer to die than to get involved in this. It has a huge cost.”
But J stopped using heroin after his brother died.
“An incident like this makes you think. I remember my brother saying to me that he wanted to live again. He wanted to have another shot at life. But God had other plans,” he said.
Deeply anxious about relapsing, J said he had changed his phone number and deleted the contacts of all the people connected with heroin.
“I want to leave this life behind me,” he said.
‘I Wasn't Always Like This’
Recalling that he had aced his studies till class 12 and cleared the entrance exam of Kashmir University for a bachelor’s programme in 2019, N*, a 24-year-old resident of Srinagar, who has relapsed six times, said his life was very different before he became a heroin addict.
His eyes filling with tears, N said, “I wasn’t always like this. I was a good kid, brought up in a respectable family.”
A few months into his bachelor’s degree, N had a car accident. While he was confined to his bed for a few months, N started thinking about owning his own business. Then, one day, one of his friends invited him to the flat he owned in Srinagar for a sleepover.
N ended up staying for three life-altering days.
“They had a carpenter working at the flat on some renovations. He passed me some powder on a foil and asked me to snort it,” said N, adding that he initially refused, but the carpenter insisted. “He told me, ‘you will feel good. Don’t be afraid.’ Very reluctantly, I did it,” he said.
Even when the Indian government rescinded J&K’s autonomy in August 2019 and imposed a lockdown and a month-long communication to prevent any backlash, N had a steady supply of heroin available. A few months later, a childhood friend learnt about N’s addiction and tried to warn him of the dire consequences. When N did not stop, his friend told his father.
Grounded at home, N apologised and promised not to do it again, but then he started experiencing “extreme withdrawal symptoms”.
“I had a terrible craving. My whole body was in pain. I was completely restless,” he said. “I called my friends and they told me to do it again to relieve myself of withdrawal symptoms.”
‘Easier To Get Heroin Than Cigarettes’
After his first relapse, N’s parents took him to a private clinic in Srinagar, where he was prescribed medicine and stayed away from heroin for three or four months.
A month before the Covid-19 pandemic hit in March 2019, N stopped taking the medicine and relapsed.
“The hard work I had done to keep myself away from drugs was a waste,” he said. “Relapsing became frequent. This whole exercise became a perpetual cycle.”
N, who has seen his friends “slowly eaten away by heroin”, said that easy availability is why people relapse frequently.
“It is easier to get heroin than to get cigarettes here,” he said. “Everyone knows where you can get heroin. Yet nobody takes action.”
‘What Have I Done With My Life’
Sharing a story about the terrible toll of drug abuse, N said that when his friend’s father passed away a few months ago, his friend first ran upstairs to take a shot of heroin and then went for the funeral prayers.
“A man’s father has died, and the first thing he does is to take a dose of heroin,” said N. “It was unthinkable a few years ago.”
Recalling one of his worst moments, N said he was at a family wedding when he started feeling desperate for heroin.
“I started trembling. I made a call to one of the dealers in a far-away Budgam village. I took my car and drove 50 km away to buy just two gm of heroin. It was three in the morning,” he said. “These drugs have destroyed an entire generation.”
With tears rolling down his face as he stood up to leave, N said, “A few years ago, I did something notable, and I was interviewed by one of the newspapers and praised by everyone. Now, I am being interviewed, but as a drug addict. What have I done with my life?”
* S, J and N spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Minhaj Masoodi and Zakia Qurashi are independent journalists based in Kashmir.