Drug peddlers target vulnerable children in Delhi slums

Poverty, police apathy, and predatory dealers trap poor children as young as 8 in a cycle of substance abuse.

Published : Jun 22, 2024 14:50 IST - 7 MINS READ

Most underprivileged children start by ‘huffing’ adhesives such as Fevicol, say experts.

Most underprivileged children start by ‘huffing’ adhesives such as Fevicol, say experts. | Photo Credit: ADNAN ABIDI/REUTERS

Kamane ke chakkar me, humara beta haath se nikal gya (in our efforts to earn money, our son slipped away from our hands),” says Asha Rani* as a tear rolls down her cheek. Asha is a resident of Kusumpur Pahadi, a slum near South Delhi’s upmarket Vasant Vihar. Kusumpur Pahadi’s principal problems include the dearth of drinking water, but access to drugs isn’t one.

Asha’s 19-year-old son, Rahul, is now recovering from drug addiction at the privately managed Tomar Foundation De-addiction and Rehabilitation Center in Neb Sarai in South Delhi. Asha works as a domestic help and her husband is a mechanic at an automobile service centre in Gurgaon, Haryana. Rahul’s addiction began when he was just 13 years old, a fact that Asha discovered during the COVID lockdown.

Discussions with local slum dwellers brought out a pattern: drug peddlers introduce teenagers to drugs to groom them as future customers. The sellers provide free substances to children to get them addicted and later turn them into paying customers. They also use children as couriers, so even if they are caught with drugs, they are released within three months as per the Juvenile Justice Act, 2015. To feed their addiction, children often resort to petty crime. Rahul, for instance, started stealing from his own home. The turning point came when Rahul got mistakenly implicated in a motorcycle theft case. He was sent to Tihar Jail, where he spent eight days. Asha alleges that even inside Tihar Jail, Rahul had access to drugs.

Shubham Pandey, a worker at the Tomar Foundation De-addiction and Rehabilitation Center, sheds more light on Rahul’s situation. “Rahul is a weed addict. He used to consume smack earlier. He hasn’t really accepted the programme yet. He hasn’t been in the programme for long, so his recovery is only physical. Mental recovery takes time, with therapy.”

The problem of drugs is pervasive across Delhi slums. In West Delhi’s Kathputli Colony, a slum cluster currently ongoing in-situ rehabilitation, every form of addiction exists: alcohol, smack, ganja, charas. A female resident says, “The area is very unsafe for women, who are repeatedly harassed by boys abusing smack. The police don’t do anything: they simply take money and leave.”

A DDA (Delhi Development Authority, which comes under the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs and is responsible for the rehabilitation of displaced residents of Kathputli colony) official says that ever since he joined work in the area in 2021, as many as 200-300 people have reportedly died due to drugs.

Aliya, a resident of Jahangirpuri, expressed her despair, “Due to the rampant drug addiction in the area, we are ready to sell our jhuggi, but it will only sell if drugs stop being sold here”. Jyoti, another resident adds, “There is drug use and then knives come out. The police come, watch, and leave.

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According to a joint study on the prevalence of substance abuse among children by the National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre, All India Institute of Medical Sciences and the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, the average age of initiation for tobacco is 12.3 years, inhalants 12.4 years, cannabis 13.4 years, alcohol 13.6 years, opioids 14-15 years and injectables at 15.1 years. It also found that street children tend to start using substances 1-1.5 years earlier than those living at home. Social stigma aggravates the problem of addiction. People, especially in India, tend to hide the issue instead of seeking professional help.

Among those who abuse substances across the Indian demographic, the vast majority consume alcohol. According to the National Survey on Extent and Pattern of Substance Use in India (2019), approximately 14.6 per cent of Indians aged 10-75 years consume alcohol. Illicit alcohol also remains a significant problem: an estimated 40 per cent of the 5 billion litres of alcohol consumed annually is illegally produced.

Subimal Banerjee works as the project coordinator at the Society for Promotion of Youth and Masses (SPYM), one of the biggest NGOs, government-aided, that provides free de-addiction programmes for the country’s youth. Says Subimal, “most underprivileged kids start by ‘huffing’ (that involves inhaling fumes from household substances for their intoxicating effects) adhesives such as Fevicol, before progressing to harder drugs. “It is terrible for the brain as it numbs the senses and motor functions, turning them into almost a vegetative state. They don’t do this for long, often succumbing to it or moving on to smack or pot.” Interestingly, inhalants are the only drug category in which prevalence among children and adolescents is higher (1.17 per cent) as compared to the adult population (0.58 per cent), according to 2019 estimates.

Another official of SPYM, under the condition of anonymity said, “The police department is one of the biggest contributors to this problem. A recovered addict told me, ‘Sir, I went back to my house and then some police came to visit me. They gave me some maal (smack packets of drugs) and asked me to sell them and bring the money to the police station.’ Such is the condition of the authority meant to keep checks on the drug trade.”

Moreover, people employed in de-addiction centres are acutely underpaid. “If the government itself isn’t interested then what can we do? My employees here are paid Rs.14,000 per month. How can one survive in Delhi with a family on an income like that? This income is decided by the Government of India in collaboration with the Ministry of Social Justice,” says Subimal.

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Nishi, a counsellor at SPYM, describes the long-term effects of drugs on young addicts. “Drugs impact the growth of a child. If a child started abusing them at eight, we often get them when they are 12. They are often severely malnourished, and their ability to think gets deteriorated along with other vital functions such as memory.” This unit of SPYM near Delhi Gate caters to only boys aged 7-17. These children are sent here by court orders through a Child Welfare Committee. The treatment programme lasts for three months: one month for detoxification followed by two months of rehabilitation, where the children are kept occupied with non-formal teaching classes, computer classes, cardio sessions, arts and crafts, therapy and yoga.

But, says Nishi, “Most cases relapse. Once they leave, they return to the same society. There have been times when the same child has come to us six times. They are mentally unstable, physically weak; the family just wants to get rid of him. There is a need for regular psychiatric help mentally disturbed children so that the counselling we provide them is effective. We’ve appealed to the court for this.”

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 2022, as many as 7222 crimes have taken place under Acts related to Liquor and Narcotic Drugs in Delhi alone. This included the Prohibition Act (State), The Excise Act, 1944, and The Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985. For the same category, the number of crimes by juveniles stands at 50.

Frontline spoke to authorities of South Delhi’s Vasant Vihar police station, which has jurisdiction over Kusumpur Pahadi. Sahi Ram, the additional Station House Officer insists there is only one case related to drug abuse in the area and the cases related to alcohol abuse are more. “The slums do not have a drug problem. It is the affluent who use drugs.” Ram, denied the involvment of juveniles in drug abuse. “I have been in this police station for about two-and-a-half years and I haven’t witnessed any such case.”

Meanwhile, Asha remains hopeful. “Mera beta toh ab sudhar ke aayega (my son will come back reformed)”, she says. About Rahul, she says, ‘Kamal bhi toh keechad mein khilta hai, par woh mandir mein hi chadaya jaata hai (the lotus also blooms in a swamp, but it is still offered in the temple).”

*Some names changed to protect identity.

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