When I met Arjun in a dilapidated section of Police Bazaar, Shillong’s city centre, he was rummaging through a dustbin. His prize was a tin container. He opened it, took a quick and deep sniff, and hid it in his pocket from onlookers. Like many street children living in Shillong city, he earns his bare necessities by rag picking. His clothes were filthy and his small and wrinkled hands, and wasted frame told a sad tale of his tiny body being overworked.
His surrounding was full of squalor – overflowed dustbins, piled-up dirt and the buzzing carpet of flies. In other words, a rag-picker’s gold mine. As he paused from his search, he spoke to us animatedly, in the way that children do about their toys or hobbies, “I only use dendrite and bidis (tobacco).”
“In a week, I would probably ingest about five to six tubes of dendrite because it helps me feel happy, relaxed and I can go about my work without feeling hungry,” he added.
“If I stop, I feel like my brains would explode- I get these blinding headaches, chest pains, I vomit out blood and I certainly cannot work,” Arjun went on.
When asked about the time he started abusing the solvent, Arjun replied,” I started at about four years ago, when I was six.”
“I guess, it was the influence of my friends that got me hooked”.
Shillong is home to a large population of tobacco, alcohol, and drug users. According to a report in the Times of India, 2016,the consumption of heroin, a narcotic derived from the sap of the poppy plant, in Meghalaya is one of the highest in the country. Another popular form of drug solvent, especially among the youth, is the sniffing of dendrite .Dendrite is a form of adhesive easily found in a hardware store. The fact that hardware stores continue to sell this addictive adhesive to street children, with full knowledge of their intentions and that it would affect their health is unscrupulous on the shop keeper’s part.
But why are children so addicted to it? Dendrite is an adhesive which contains toluene, a sweet smelling chemical which dissolves the membrane of the brain cells. In other words, it numbs the brain waves, reducing sensitivity to hunger and cold and causes hallucinations. Long term exposure to large amounts of it results in the person losing touch of his surrounding, violent behavior, loss of self control , unconsciousness, and even death. This became evident as we walked past a street urchin, whose vacant and unresponsive expression elucidated that he was unaware of his immediate surroundings .
“Can I go now?” Arjun complained, with a mischievous smile, implying how a tube of dendrite can substitutes for a couple of day’s square meal. “You know, I’m getting hungry.”
I caught up with 17-year-old Nazeem, 16-year-old Rasheed and 15-year-old Gurja, a trio of rag-pickers who were at the point of their daily ritual of sniffing dendrite in an abandoned garage site. Nazeem said, “ We sleep in front of closed shops at night because the police are always after our blood.”
“We could be doing anything from sleeping to sniffing dendrite, they don’t care, they would beat us all the same,” Rasheed added.
“They always see us as a nuisance.” Gurja exclaimed.
When inquired about the income that they made daily from rag-picking, they replied that they earned about INR 200 (US$2.9) to INR 300 (us$4.3)per day. “But we have families to feed back home, so it’s difficult to get a square meal everyday and sniffing dendrite gives us the boost we need to carry on with an entire day’s work.”
Thus, the voicing out of society’s insignificant other. A spokesperson, who was an ex-alcohol-addict-turned-social worker said of children like Nazeem, Rasheed and Gurja,” society always sees them as a burden, causing them to become a stigma”.
Kong Kristi, a mother of a seventeen-year-old heroin addict who lives in a largely-working class neighbourhood called Nongmynsong explained to me, “It is these dealers who intentionally turn these kids to addicts so that they would become their suppliers, you know.”
“They give them these drugs for free at first ,making sure they get hooked onto them, then they make them do their bidding as suppliers, while they themselves operate at a safe distance away from the chances of getting caught,” she elaborated.
John and Shemphang are two boys who also live in Nongmynsong. Both admitted to being addicted to the drug they call ‘Chase’ , which is short for ‘Chasing the dragon’. It refers to the ingestion of heroin by inhaling the vapours with a pipe of cigarette which result when the drug is heated on a tin foil above a flame. The image of one maneuvering to inhale the swirling silver smoke emitted is where ‘Chasing the dragon’ gets its name from.
When heroin enters the brain, a surge of pleasurable sensation- a “rush” is induced. This is usually accompanied by a warm flushing of the skin, dry mouth and a heavy headedness. Nausea, vomiting and itching may also occur.After the initial affects, users usually will feel drowsy for several hours, mental function is clouded, heart function and breathing is severally slowed, sometimes enough to be life threatening. It was one of these attacks that landed John in hospital. John admitted to having used a packet of Chase two times a day.
“I’d buy them from Iewduh ( Market), where I would meet peddlers”, he said. “It cost around INR 300 (US$ 4.3) for a packet of white powder.”
His desperation led him to steal from his family, and John explained with clarity that when one doesn’t get it when one needs it most, it’s like the whole body goes through a shock.
“You can neither sleep nor eat and your bones hurt,” he added. “I was introduced to it by my friends, at the age of fourteen”.
Because his family had supported him through his therapy and rehab, John realizes the importance of seeking help.
Shemphang is 18 years old. Unlike John, he does not feel the need to go to a rehab or get help. “I do it myself, I lock myself up at home.” He was introduced to drugs between the ages of 12 and 13. He admitted to inhaling heroin about six or seven times a day. A year ago he turned to injecting heroin, which is even more lethal than inhaling it. He also confessed to having run away from home two to three months in a row, succumbing to street life and drugs, and would only return home when he was in dire need of money.
His message to the Youth?- “If you ever you want to use drugs, remember, don’t use hard drugs like heroin”.
The East Khasi Hills superintendent of Police, Davis Marak, said during a programme on ‘International Day Against Drug abuse and Illicit Trafficking’, that Shillong is not only the transit point between India and neighboring countries like Myanmar but also one of the major centers of distribution of heroin to other parts of the country.With its location being next to the border and having a cosmopolitan characteristic, a number of the youth are falling prey to this drug. Most of its child victims are from low income families or broken homes.
Niel Ranee, who is in charge of an open day shelter in Shillong operated by an organization called Reach Shillong Ministries explained the difficulties and seriousness of the situation, “These children cannot organize themselves and we as a society must encourage them, motivate them, to change for the better.”
Niel Ranee spoke of the drug addicts as children first, “like all children, they easily succumb to peer pressure and bad influence if no one is there to teach them ethics”. Crisony Pale, a family counselor said, “It is because their parents cannot set an example that they fall into this trap, and they have no one to listen to their problems either”.
Most of us may feel privileged when we drop money into a begging bowl, but that may not be as effective as we think. It is rather an encouragement for child beggars to carry on this easy way of making money to buy drugs. “ If we can afford it, we should replace giving money with real care through kind deeds,” Niel Ranee rationalized.
The three boys that we spoke to, tell of philanthropists who come to help vagabonds by night or day, offering them food, blankets, clothes and medicine. Yet they remain unnamed and seek neither glory nor fame. Waiting for the government authorities or the police to push them to a corner ,away from our sight does not mean that the problem would dissipate by itself. Niel Ranee once again opined,” if the community could, then it should find the root cause of the problem”.
A medical social worker from NEIGHRIMS recounted, “ At one time, during a meeting with street children,they told us that awareness programmes are well and good but when they return back to their street habitat, they cannot help but use drugs to get through their reality, and even up till now, there is no direct government intervention, in the way of day care centers.”
“We have suggested to government authorities to set up a child friendly rehab center, which would cater only to children,” Niel Ranee explained further. “But no initiatives have been taken up so far.”
As an Adolescent Counselor at the city’s government hospital, Civil Hospital, Phida Dkhar has seen her fair share of drug-related delinquency. “Drugs shorten everything!” she described. “It kills family life, ties with friends and at the end, the addict themselves and there should be disciplinary training programmes, conducted by sensitized youth.”
Author: Karen Lyndem
Karen Lyndem is a Staff Writer. She has a B.A in English and a Masters of Social Work from St. Edmund’s College, Shillong.