Spring has brought fresh hope for Pema, an 18-year-old recovering addict in Phuentsholing.

The promise lies with the Happiness Centre Recovery Volunteer Group (HCRVG) located at the confluence of Omchhu and Toorsa.

It has been two months since the Class VI dropout was accepted as a client by the happiness centre. He has not abused drugs since then. But he is scared.

“I may relapse,” he said.

Inside the tiny room of the centre, Pema reveals his journey of addiction. It started when his parents got separated in 2014.

His mother moved to Paro and his father is with a new wife.

“Eventually, my father listened to the stepmother and, one day, he threw me out of the house in 2014,” Pema said, adding that he was then left homeless.

According to Pema he resorted to theft and threatening people at a knife-point to get by.

Today, HCRGV is his home and friends there his family.

HCRVG founder, a 40-year-old Bhupdhoj Ghalley, a former addict, found Pema during his voluntary work of counselling.

“Today I have seven residential clients,” he said. “At least 25 boys drop by every evening and most are students.”

The centre provides self-help programmes, conduct yoga and meditation, games and sports activities, and educate the young men on addiction and recovery.

Bhupdhoj also started abusing drugs at a tender age of 13.

“My friends used drugs and I was left alone and insecure,” Bhupdhoj said, adding he eventually started to abuse drugs due to fear of rejection.

“I wasted 20 years of my precious life; I lost everyone,” he said. “I don’t want it to happen to them and that is why I am trying every bit to help them.”

As Phuentsholing shares a porous border with Jaigaon, the town is notorious for illegal drug abuse and trafficking. Despite measures, abuse and smuggling have increased.

Police records reveal that people conceal illegal drugs in the engine compartment of vehicle, hoods of vehicle, headlights, wheel drum, and dash board. Some even hide the substance in their under garments.

Since Bhutanese police send the illegal drugs’ batch numbers to the counterparts across the border after seizures, the senior superintendent of police in Phuentsholing, Colonel Wangchukla, said the substances were now coming in pills and not in strips.

“The drug dealers have no shops and they sell to abusers in an open space,” he said. “Mostly, the sellers are also the abusers.”

Wangchukla said most of the abusers are school dropouts, students and civil servants. The drugs are sold from their residence and sometimes openly.

Phuentsholing police, in the meanwhile, conducts surprise checks at the entry gate, conduct regular checks on the highway and at the check points. RBP also sensitises teachers and students, local leaders, and parents.

Recently, RBP visited the schools in Phuentsholing to collect the name lists of abusers.

“Lists are collected and is a pilot project where we can monitor and give counselling,” Wangchukla said. “Student abusers have opened up and came forward for rehab.”

Further, RBP also keeps patrolling suspicious places and coordinate with the counterparts for monitoring across the border. In 2018, police across the border has also seized lots of drugs in their area, Colonel Wangchukla said.

Colonel Wangchukla said parents should not believe in the face value of their children as they might look simple but tricking them and abusing.

“Parents should properly monitor their children’s eating habits, sleeping time and all other activities,” he said.

Despite all the efforts, the number of illegal drugs cases increased. In four months, Phuentsholing police arrested 57 people. In total, police seized 5,355 pieces of SP Plus this year. Various other drugs were also seized.

In 2018, Phuentsholing police arrested 214 people in Phuentsholing and it includes other places in Chukha. A total of 47,912 pieces of SP Plus were seized. More than 3.5kg of marijuana was seized, 19,314 pieces of N-10 tablets, and various other drugs in the form of pills and liquid were also seized.

Police arrested 236 people in 2017, the highest between 2016 and 2019. SP Plus was seized the most with 71,541 pieces. In 2016, 228 people were arrested and 72,930 SP Plus were seized. From 2016 until today, in total, 197,738 pieces of SP Plus have been seized. A total of 735 people were arrested.

Across the country, between 2013 and March 31 this year, police arrested 2,606 youth for drug related offences.   

A police source from across the border said regular raids and making seizures were conducted.

Sources also confirmed a Bhutanese woman in mid 20s stays in Jaigaon and mediates between smugglers. It is her primary source of income and conducts the mediation smartly for commissions.

Rishi Nandan, a Jaigaon resident, said he had seen illegal drugs being sold openly.

“It is coming as fruits and vegetables,” he said. “The trade of illegal drugs has increased over the years.”

While it is traded by people across the border, most of the buyers and abusers are Bhutanese, he said.

“If buyers decrease the sellers would automatically decrease,” Rishi Nandan said.

Meanwhile, lunchtime is just over at HCRVG. Pema has more to tell.

“I haven’t seen anybody from my family for a long time,” he said. “I saw my father once in the town but he turned a blind eye.”

As he opens up more about his family, Pema said he has a grandfather and a younger sister that he wants to meet.

“I feel so sad that nobody has come to see me,” he said. “I cannot stay at HCRGV forever. I am even afraid I may relapse.”

HCRGV’s founder Bhupdhoj said he wants to train Pema for some work.

The centre is a small place. As it is a voluntary based outreach, not many know about it. The centre takes addicts and eventually hand them to their parents and relatives for rehabilitation. HCRGV also takes in those who return from rehabilitation.

Pema and Bhupdhoj have a dream at HCRGV.

Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing