Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Getting high….non-stop

Diana Joseph, the founder of the Kochi-based NGO ‘Venda’ (Say No To Drugs) talks about how drug-taking has become an epidemic among the youth in Kerala

Photos by Albin Mathew 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Amma, I am going cycling,” says Luke, on a Saturday afternoon at his home in Fort Kochi. Since this has become a weekly habit for a few weeks, Luke’s mother Reena says, “Okay.” The fifteen-year-old takes his bicycle out on the road and starts pedalling.

After 10 minutes, Luke reaches the beach and meets up with his classmates, all of whom are students at a nearby government school. Soon, Mahesh Uncle, an elderly person of their community arrives on a bicycle. All the students do ‘high fives’ with him before they set out.

They ride down many roads. All of them love cycling. And after an hour or so, they enter Container Road, which is near the International Container Transshipment Terminal at Vallarpadom. There are many trucks parked on one side. Mahesh introduces the boys to the drivers, many of whom are from North India. Soon, the boys are given treats, followed by alcohol and drugs. Hours pass. The boys are also shown pornographic films on mobiles. They are feeling dazed by what they are seeing and taking. Later, as it gets dark, the drivers sodomise the youngsters. Each time, it happens, Luke feels disturbed.

Finally, he tells the physical trainer in the school, who calls the Kochi-based NGO ‘Venda’ (Say No To Drugs). ‘Venda’ is part of the Bangalore-based ‘Fourth Wave Foundation’, which works for education, empowerment, ethics and inclusion. In Kochi, they started focusing on drug counselling because of widespread addiction.

Luke and his friends went through rigorous counselling over a period of months before they returned to normal,” says Diana Joseph, the founder-director of ‘Venda’. “Today, they are concentrating on their studies but, at the same time, they are being monitored.” And what made Diana especially happy was the quick reaction of the police and the Narcotics Control Bureau, when they were informed about what was happening. “They began regular patrolling,” says Diana. “Now, the road has become safe.”

But the news otherwise is gloomy. On May 30, at a function, at Kochi, Kerala State Excise Commissioner Rishiraj Singh said, “The second highest drug abuse cases in India has been reported from Kochi.” (Amritsar has the highest).

The drug users are as young as nine years old. They include boys and girls. Most of them stay in high-risk areas where drug-taking is rampant. “As a result, children will end up being mules (drug carriers), or they will use it or get affected by it. Maybe, somebody in the family is already an addict.” As for the drugs which are consumed, they include heroin, marijuana, hashish, crack and cocaine.

Asked how they get access to it, Diana says, “You can buy it online if you can get access to certain shadowy groups on Facebook and Whatsapp. Many small shops, like bakery outlets and photocopy shops, near schools sell it. Apart from them, it seems like organised crime is pushing these drugs in towns and cities all over Kerala.”

Not surprisingly, many teenagers from financially straitened families are lured to become mules. “I want to be rich,” says Deepak, 17. “Only donkeys sit in classrooms for twenty years to earn a small salary every month. That’s why I became a mule. It’s good money. If there is a big haul, I can earn Rs 1 lakh or more from one delivery.”

As for the reasons for youngsters taking to drugs, Diana says, “Peer pressure. Exam stress. Broken families. Emotional problems. Failed affairs.”

So ‘Venda’ has embarked on a ‘prevention is better than a cure’ programme. So they go to schools and colleges and conduct programmes about the dangers of drugs, of how lives can get ruined if you get addicted. “Awareness makes a difference,” says Diana. “We also do counselling for parents as well as teachers. Many of them are in a state of denial. They find it difficult to accept that their child or student is taking drugs.”

Last year the NGO dealt with 221 cases. “Out of that 62% came out of the addiction,” says Diana. “Another 10% are out of it but need long-term help. About 28% need continued counselling.”

All this hard work has resulted in some good news for ‘Venda’. Diana was invited to present ‘Venda’s’ work at the 61st Congressional on Narcotics and Drugs at the United Nations in November last year. ‘Venda’ was also featured as a ‘Best Practice Case’ in the guide for civil societies at the Ministerial Segment of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in March this year. “We are happy to make a difference, however small it may be,” says Diana. 

(Some names have been changed)

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