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Bollywood Film Highlights Need for Indian Drug Law Reform

The Bollywood film, Udta Punjab, has consumed the public sphere in India. The film provides a sobering exploration of drug use and addiction within the context of poverty, development, politics, and corruption.

Udta Punjab depicts characters who have severe addictions to drugs, while boldly illustrating the role of politicians and law enforcement in creating and perpetuating the problem. The setting of Punjab – a state in the north-west of India – is contemporarily pertinent, as the state’s population has suffered considerably due to detrimental drug policies.

The film’s potential for success was almost halted by India’s Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) who sought the removal of many scenes – including all references to Punjab, the upcoming state election, and Punjabi politicians. As well as being a gross infringement upon free expression, the attempted censorship may be linked to political corruption; the former Director General of Police in Punjab, Shashi Kant, has alleged that several of the state's politicians are complicit in the illegal drug trade. The filmmakers took their case to the Bombay High Court, which ruled against the proposed cuts.

Punjab is currently at a crossroads; drug misuse is rampant, addiction rates are soaring, thousands are incarcerated for drug offences, and elections are right around the corner. Poised to be the single biggest issue in the 2017 state election, drug policy has gained considerable importance in both politics and public discourse.

Of the 26,000 inmates in Punjab’s prisons, 47 per cent have been charged or convicted under the national government’s Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act. Over 30 per cent of people in India incarcerated under this Act are in Punjab, despite the state accounting for less than three per cent of the national population. Further, a 2015 study estimates that there are 230,000 opioid-dependant people living in Punjab; drug misuse and addiction are rife in the state.

The film highlights the involvement of corrupt authorities in the drug trade (Source: YouTube)

Udta Punjab portrays addiction as a biopsychosocial condition – a result of the complex biological, psychological, and social factors that an individual experiences or is predisposed to – not a moral failing. The film uses engaging and diverse characters, from a range of socioeconomic groupings, to depict such factors; people suffering from identity conflict, the trauma of rape, enduring poverty, as well as peer pressure.

The ideological shift presented – viewing addiction as a health issue, rather than a moral one – is, perhaps, the most valuable impact of Udta Punjab on the future of Indian drug policy.

When citizens consider drugs to be an issue of morality or criminality, politicians are incentivised to follow a heavy handed approach on drugs. If more people begin to view addiction as a health issue, politicians will have greater incentives to design drug policies that improve people’s wellbeing. Rather than measuring the success of policies by the quantity of drugs interdicted or offenders incarcerated, policies can be judged by the quantity of people being referred to treatment, or provided with opportunities to integrate into, and contribute to, society.

Udta Punjab has demonstrated the power of the arts to affect social change; the film is spurring public scrutiny of drug policy, enlightening people to the issue's many layers.

An informed electorate is essential for incentivising politicians to bring awareness, education, and deliberation to policy considerations. We must thank the makers of Udta Punjab for presenting such complex problems in an accessible manner; encouraging the public to think, question, and demand change.

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