PUNJAB, India — Here in Khem Karan, a bustling town of 12,000 on the border with Pakistan, young men speed down narrow roads on motorbikes, stopping at street corners where they linger in groups, chain-smoking cigarettes for hours.
This is Punjab's future — the next generation of husbands and fathers, and three-quarters of the workforce.
These young men suffer from two serious and interconnected problems: unemployment and drug abuse — the latter fueled by cheap, synthetic opiates and heroin smuggled over the border.
Punjab state now has the second most underemployed workforce in the country. Only 448 of 1,000 people are fully employed, according to the Labor Ministry. And experts believe a lack of jobs is feeding rampant drug use, creating a vicious cycle that renders young men incapable of working if jobs ever materialize.
The state government estimates that at least half of its youth are affected by addiction. A study by the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies found that 65 percent of the families in the district that includes Khem Karan count at least one drug addict among their members.
Rahul, a good-humored 23-year-old Khem Karan resident, represents this demographic.
A former athlete, he started using heroin at the age of 20, while toiling at a monotonous job at the nearby wheat processing plant. Rahul, whose last name was withheld for protection, said his co-workers were nervous that he — then the only non-user in the group — would report them and eventually convinced him to try heroin.
“I just became happy, I just wanted to sleep,” he said, recalling his first hit.
Sitting in his modest home, old sports awards and medals arranged behind him, Rahul said his personal habit soon turned into a profession. Like his friends, he would sell 15 to 20 grams of heroin daily, taking in up to 25,000 rupees (about $415) per day — more than what he earned in a month selling grain. But that didn’t help his financial status. He habitually squandered his earnings on drugs and new clothes.
Meanwhile, his goal of getting a government job was sidelined.
“I used to think of drugs first thing when I woke up in the morning,” he said.
Young people like Rahul are easy prey for major drug dealers, who are sometimes from wealthy or political families, said Satinder Vir Singh, a district officer for secondary education.
For generations, families in Punjab sustained themselves through the lucrative agriculture industry. As they grew wealthier and children attended school, communities started to place more value on jobs that require less labor. Parents urged the next generation to work in an office or with the government.
But at a town hall meeting in the village of Valtoha, about 8 miles from Khem Karan, the handful of young men present said they couldn’t find a job after graduation. Nineteen-year-old Manpreet Singh said he was asked to give a 500,000-rupee (about $8,300) bribe for a government job. And 22-year-old Lakvinder Singh has been waiting for a response about a Forest Department job for eight months.
Singh, the education officer, said most students are searching for “white-collar jobs” but that the current market can’t absorb the influx of graduates with these goals. Being stuck in this limbo, he said, makes them vulnerable.
“If you’re idle and don’t have a job, if you’re not going to school and not looking for any future prospects, then frustration will come to mind. Idle mind is a devil’s workshop — so this is when drugs step in.”
Many citizens blame the government. There are currently ten government addiction treatment centers in a state of nearly 30 million people, and there’s little education or awareness about the problem.
Law enforcement also falls short. Police only take action to recover large amounts of drugs. Avtar Singh, a police inspector in Valtoha, said his staff don’t file paperwork for anyone they catch selling or using less than five grams of heroin. Singh said most of the reported crimes, like theft or violence, are now related to addiction. And a study from Guru Nanak Dev University found that narcotics-related crimes in Punjab are nine times the national average.
“Parents come to the police when it’s extreme. Usually they try to protect their children at first and then talk about it after it’s out of control,” Singh said.
While communities are pessimistic about the government’s ability to rebuild a faltering generation, some citizens are trying to find solutions.
Pawan Sharma, 26, started volunteering for a nonprofit anti-drug organization, Smile for Life, when his older brother became addicted to heroin after a bad breakup with his girlfriend. Sharma’s middle-class family eventually paid 50,000 rupees — about half the per capita annual income of a Punjab resident — to send his brother to a rehabilitation center.
Sharma said he recognized that few families in Khem Karan could afford the hefty fees of the remote centers. So in recent years he has worked to organize temporary rehab camps focused on counseling and educating youth.
“There is awareness only in cities,” he said. “It should be in villages too.”
Brij Bedi, a longtime activist and educator based in the city of Amritsar, said both Punjab’s drug epidemic and unemployment are symptoms of the same, much larger disease — one rooted in poor governance.
Grey-haired and gruff, Bedi founded the Citizen Forum Vidya Mandir in 1999, an elementary and middle school in Maqboolpura, a neighborhood called the “locality of widows” because of the number of men lost to drug-related deaths. Political greed, he said, had left dismal schools and poor health care in Punjab.
“It’s not drugs that’s affecting the youth,” he said from his office, the noise of children resounding behind him. “It’s lack of infrastructure which is hindering in creating more jobs and opportunities.”
Even so, there are some signs that the government is finally listening: In mid-June, the state government of Punjab announced a plan to offer free medical treatment and to create 22 more detox centers. And within the next year, India will introduce a new education curriculum, the National Vocational Education Qualification Framework, to offer tangible skills training such as retail management and automobile maintenance to anyone enrolled in a public high school.
Meanwhile, young men like Rahul will continue to fight a battle between their broken dreams and the reality they see every day on the street corners and alleys of their neighborhood. After receiving treatment at a nearby drug rehabilitation center, he is back at home and sober. But he has yet to re-enter the workforce.
“I want to go abroad because there’s no good job here,” he said. “The only jobs available here are drugs-related jobs. That’s where the money is.”