Sikkim needs to be brave, not prudish in tackling substance abuse and suicides
Sometime in early 2016, the Social Justice, Empowerment & Welfare Department was handed over a detailed list of what was expected of it. Most of the directions were routine reminders of what a Department with an elaborate, self-explanatory name like “Social Justice, Empowerment & Welfare Department” should have been doing all along. These included directions like working in close coordination with other related departments, preparing workable plans to make Sikkim malnutrition free etc. There were also some specific directions which one hopes the Department got working on. In fact, because the directions were issued more than two years ago, one hopes that some of these tasks have already been completed. For instance, one of the directions issued to the Department was to conduct/ commission a study on suicides and its causes in Sikkim. This was a necessary and welcome initiative, but since one has not heard any further developments on this count, the file to commission such a study is probably still being processed or maybe the study remains a work in progress.
Meanwhile, Sikkim continues to lose people to suicides. Worse still, it still does not know why the numbers are so disturbingly high. Hopefully, this newspaper is wrong in speculating that the study is caught in red tape; hopefully, the study has been undertaken and its findings submitted and are being deliberated upon.
Further, the Department was also asked to come up with programmes to fight drug abuse and alcoholism with special focus on high relapse rates. That was also a welcome intervention, but not one as easily delegated as, say, a study on suicides. This one requires much wider collaborations, a stronger will to take criticism and a more resolute commitment to address the challenge. It would be unfair to expect bureaucrats in a transferable job to get so invested in a cause/ issue, and it is unlikely that a problem as big as substance abuse can get solved through departmental interventions alone. It is a good sign that the government is seized of the matter and is consistently making policy-level commitments reiterating its willingness to address the issue as was recently reiterated by the Chief Minister as well when he put on record that addicts and peddlers need to be tackled differently and that the mission against substance abuse needs to be more nuanced and compassionate.
While this is a good place to begin from, it is never advisable for governments to get involved in all aspects of social interventions. As it is, there is too much government in all fields of activity in Sikkim and if even social responsibilities are passed on to it, what will the rest of the society contribute? Another important reason why the battle against substance abuse should not be led by the government is because government directives and orders lack the light touch required to address a problem as complicated as substance abuse. One of the proposals on how to address the problem, for instance, was to expel students from school after three warning if they still consume alcohol, and expel them straightaway if they abuse drugs! Alcoholism and drug abuse while on duty by government servants was also to attract termination from service! Apart from the legal minefield that such diktats are walking into, they are also highly insensitive because surely, there must be better ways to end addiction and alcoholism than removing addicts and alcoholics from the scene.
Sikkim needs to be brave, not prudish in tackling substance abuse.