India’s fight on drugs is urgent

In Parliament this week, the government declared an all-out war on drugs with Union home minister Amit Shah linking the proliferation of drug smuggling to terrorism and black money. Speaking in the Lok Sabha in his reply to a debate on the drug menace, Mr Shah took a hardline stance on drugs and said the central government had adopted a “zero-tolerance” policy that involved setting up surveillance and coordination centres at the district level to ensure an effective crackdown at the grassroots level. He also made clear that the government was investing its political capital in this battle when he defended enhanced powers to federal agencies — a step that many large states and Opposition parties have bristled against because they view it as an encroachment on the state government’s turf — and urged the states to join the Centre in fighting this scourge.

Mr Shah is right in his estimation of the linkages between drugs and nefarious funding of illegal activities and terrorism. As narco States and countries in the West have shown, a booming drug trafficking network can hollow out State apparatus, gut the futures of generations of young people, and create a parallel economy that becomes impossible for the government to track or control. Though the scale of the problem is not as gargantuan in India, yet the government is right to put the country on alert and crack down on traffickers and peddlers, especially when certain states are reeling from the impact of drug-addled young people.

While this alacrity is needed, the government must also be careful in not penalising individuals and communities, who, as the Ronald Reagan-spurred war on drugs showed, often end up as collateral damage and find themselves stereotyped, imprisoned and pushed out of mainstream society. Mr Shah made a promising start when he said that the government will differentiate between users, who will be treated as victims, and peddlers, who will not be spared. Similar care needs to be adopted by law enforcement authorities while applying the harsh provisions of India’s anti-narcotics law, where the burden of proof is often effectively shifted on to the accused, bail is sparingly given and mandatory minimum sentences restrict the discretion of judges. Studies show that people arrested for personal consumption form the bulk of the those behind bars under the law, and that many of them are from marginalised backgrounds. The minister is right in identifying drugs as a national problem, but the authorities must adopt a flexible and sensitive approach when required.