In February, Arman* began sneaking out again. He would disappear for days on end, to be found usually passed out in the back of autorickshaws. Sometimes his mother Noor* got phone calls from police officers in Old Delhi. Her son was up to his usual tricks. Thieving mobiles, picking pockets, hustling, anything to make a bit and get high.

Police officers often took pity on the 11-year-old addict. They would let him go after a couple of tight slaps. He had already spent two terms in a rehabilitation centre where he had promised his House Father that the days of smack abuse were behind him.

They weren’t.

For two days in February Arman* dropped out of sight. He had vanished from his old haunts. Nobody had heard from him. He was hanging out at Jaffrabad in east Delhi in an older friend’s house. The boys, aged 11 and 18, had started to try out the “asli nasha,” the real thing. They were mainlining, injecting drugs rather than smoking or inhaling. Arman is HIV+.

On that cold, sunny, bracing day, he walked back from Jaffrabad to Seelampur. The usual euphoria of a high was clouded by unease. As the sun hit his eyes Arman struggled to keep them open. White froth accumulated on the side of his mouth. He seemed to be slipping in and out, awake one moment, then struggling to keep going. He blacked out not far from home.

Passersby saw this child, short and wiry, in jeans and checked shirt lying face down near a garbage dump. On the street he was just an inconvenience, so someone moved him further up the garbage heap. Finally an acquaintance recognised his face and spiky hair but didn’t take him home. Almost an hour had passed when news of the boy’s condition reached his mother.

He’s dead, Noor thought. She ran through the labyrinth of narrow lanes that make up Block G of the mohalla, pushing past people. She shook her son, his skinny body stiff on the ground. Minutes later Noor emerged from the heap of trash, her son in her arms still alive.



or heroin, 1982 was a five star year. India—strategically located at the opium crossroads of the Golden Crescent of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan and the Golden Triangle of Thailand, Laos and Burma (now Myanmar)—was for long just a transit point for dealers and peddlers. The big markets lay west and east, no one looked at India as a buyer. But by 1980 dealers were beginning to see possibilities in India and with the 1982 crash of silver prices, Indian smugglers taking silver out and bringing gold in switched to heroin as a profitable substitute.


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Writing in 1986 for India Today, Raj Chengappa observed, “Three years ago hardly anyone [had] heard of smack addicts. But today it has become the number one problem concerning officials and psychiatrists combating drug addiction in the country… In four major government hospitals in Delhi which treated only 50 patients in 1982 almost 3,000 addicts came for treatment last year and 1,000 of them had to be refused admission because of lack of beds.”

Smack or brown sugar is a semi-synthetic opioid derived from morphine extracted from the poppy plant. Opioids are a class of drugs that include heroin and other powerful pain relievers available legally by prescription. Not only do opioids relieve pain, they also produce sensations of euphoria and are highly addictive.

Heroin accounts for only 20 per cent in brown sugar, the remaining 80 per cent is a mixture the dealer adds to bulk up volume. These impurities make smack cheaper yet more dangerous than heroin. According to a UN report, India is the largest consumer of heroin in South Asia with one million registered addicts in the country. Unofficial numbers put it at around five million users.

Noor entered Tihar with four-month-old Arman in her arms. It is in the jail that the toddler took his first steps. When they returned home, Arman’s father was drowning in heroin addiction. He died of an overdose when Arman was four.

One in five of these addicts is a child. The 2016 survey by the Women and Child Development Department and AIIMS, estimates that there are approximately 70,000 addicts on Delhi’s streets. In its 2015 report, the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) stated that there were about four million addicts in India. Tobacco and alcohol, the most commonly abused substances, serve as gateway drugs to hardcore substance abuse. Children as young as 9 start smoking beedi and marijuana and graduate to opium and heroin from the age of 12 onwards, according to research by AIIMS.

It is not the drug-taker but the drug that is the true villain of this tale. For a long time, it is true, India was a mere transit point for international traffickers to smuggle Afghan heroin to Europe and the US, but no longer. A 2011 UN drug report calculates that of the 40 tonnes produced in South Asia, some17 tonnes are consumed in India. The India trade is valued at $1.4 billion. The cost of one gram of smack in hotspots around the capital, from jhuggi-jhonpdi clusters to parks, is ₹200-300.

Smack seizures are at an all-time high. During 2015 alone, the NCB destroyed 1.4 tonnes of heroin. According to their report, 2007-2011 saw a decrease in heroin seizures after which there has been a rising trend of seizures. In 2017 the Coast Guard and the Navy seized 1.5 tonnes of heroin worth ₹3,500 crore off Porbandar coast. It was the largest haul ever.



obody closed the doors to their jhuggi in Seelampur, not now and not back when Noor arrived from Bareilly in 1989. It is the sort of place where a dupatta separates the private from the public. Nothing is really personal, not the fights of lovers, the wailing of children or the business women conduct from their house.

In one such house, Noor, then 26, was raising her four children—one girl and three boys—and was pregnant with her fifth with a new husband. The jhuggis of Seelampur have a bad reputation.

“She entertains men,” said one woman.

“People stop by her home to buy drugs,” said another.

It was only a matter of time before the police showed up outside Noor’s house. Some claimed she was the dealer. It explained why so many people came and went from her house. Noor’s fall from grace, as a struggling mother cleaning the houses of rich people in Delhi, played out with dizzying speed.

By the end, her jhuggi was a locus for the smack trade. Small-time pushers stopped by, addicts descended and her husband dabbled with the drug.

When Noor was picked up from her house by police, her neighbours had gathered out front. A mother used the arrest as an opportunity. “Don’t do drugs,” she told her young children. They had caught her with smack and she was booked for possession under the NDPS Act.

He would first feel it in the back of his legs. Then it climbed up his neck. He could feel the muscles slacken in a wave of relaxation. He spent days floating across the mohalla, eyes wide shut, unaware of time or day.

Despite her cries of innocence, she entered Tihar with four-month-old Arman in her arms. It is in the jail that the toddler took his first steps while his mother served a 14-month sentence. When they returned home, Arman’s father was drowning in heroin addiction. He died of an overdose when Arman was four.

Then and now, Seelampur is the sort of place where addicts and azaan coexist seamlessly. It is a curious cocktail of vice and virtue, a community where a temple, a mosque and a gurdwara are within walking distance of each other, where a woman called Amma sells drugs to anyone, even Arman or to the children playing badminton over a man passed out on a vegetable cart.



rman started young, at seven, at the bottom of the drug hierarchy, with a beedi. He recalls his head spinning and the older boys laughing. Months later his new friends taught him how to separate the seeds and stems from a marijuana bud, throwing the junk and licking the rolling paper. They would smoke joints and play on the swings at nearby parks, mess about in the mohalla until one evening when Faraz* showed up with smack. About half an hour after smoking it, Arman vomited. He vomited five more times, after which he got blindingly high.

This was different from anything he had tried before. He would first feel it in the back of his legs. Then it climbed up his neck. He could feel the muscles slacken in a wave of relaxation. He spent days floating across the mohalla, eyes wide shut, unaware of time or day. Soon he was skipping school. When the school called after his second absence, his older brother gave him a beating.

Fearing the riffraff in the government school his older brother moved him to a private school. It was no use. His yellow bicycle would be parked outside but Arman was roaming the stree-ts, getting high, disappearing for days together. It was not long before searching through the night became a kind of family ritual. Often they would find him in the back of an auto, passed out.

Soon the family got caught up in the dread that is life with an addict. Faced with few options, his eldest stepbrother, Rafiq*, the man of the house, tried to banish him to a madarsa high in the hills of Arunachal. Arman came running back and got high again. Rafiq, 24, then tried to admit him to a private rehabilitation centre where he unscrewed the fan from the duct, squeezed his skinny ten-year-old body out and escaped. He took two others with him and they all got high.

Arman’s stepsister, to whom he was closest, begged and pleaded. Sheba*, 26, was the oldest of the siblings. It was she who journeyed to Tihar as a 12-year-old to visit Arman and their mother. She tried to reason with him. “He promised he’d listen but those promises, they were just words,” she says.

So Noor shackled him. She took a long silver chain and tied it around his leg not five but six times. With a small lock, she secured the chain. She ignored Arman’s pleas, his wails, his threats and his assurances of reformed behaviour. She kept the key in her brassiere and dozed off with one hand over the boy in a state of constant stress.



e jolted out of sleep to that god-awful pain in his body. It was still night. Arman could feel his younger brother’s body next to his. He heard his mother breathing heavily above his shoulders. He pictured his sister in a heap somewhere next to the washing machine. He kicked his brother’s leg, partly to make space and partly out of frustration. It would be hours until the door to his jhuggi opened and he was badly in need of a fix.

A minute turned into an hour, an hour to an eternity and water began to flow from his eyes. He writhed in pain, his bones ached and his groans were getting louder. He tried to think on the bright side. At least he wasn’t in shackles tonight. The thought didn’t last long. There was nothing more depraved than a comedown. When his mother awoke and opened the door to their jhuggi, Arman was out in hot pursuit of smack.

“At least have your milk,” she called after him but he was gone into the maze of alleys that made up Block G of the mohalla in Seelampur, lost in the vicious, repetitive cycle of drug abuse. He passed a row of coloured houses and stopped outside a turquoise jhuggi. He called out to Faraz whose father was already awake lighting a foil, getting high in plain sight. They picked up Dawood from across the alley and walked down the narrow lane in single file.


In the empty lot behind their house, they stood in a circle. Faraz opened a tiny packet and emptied the brown powder on a piece of aluminium foil. Dawood struck a match and placed it under the foil, the powder melted and each boy inhaled it with a rolled up silver foil taking in the adulterated form of heroin. By now, Arman was on three doses a day with the last one at night. If he didn’t get his fix he couldn’t sleep.

“We don’t have much left,” he said as each boy took a hit. They would soon have to prowl the streets of Old Delhi, stealing money to keep on top of supply. But for now the drug took over and they floated out of their bodies, feeling nothing, not even the pain of being a child.

“To be high is to be free,” Arman said.

A smackhead spends half his life waiting for his next fix, doing whatever it takes to get the high. They would move to Jama Masjid where in the mad press of people they stole mobiles and picked pockets.

After a hit, Arman got a bit of colour in his gaunt face. Days passed without food but he always bought a Frooti before riding into Delhi. With forty rupees for a shared auto, Arman, Faraz and Dawood rode into the capital, to places where they were denied access. They would always begin at India Gate, his favourite spot in the city. They would walk to North Block and South Block blissfully unaware of the eyes that watched them. “Those are the most beautiful buildings in Delhi,” he said.

But it was not all pleasure. A smackhead lives on smack-time, he spends half his life waiting for his next fix, doing whatever it takes to get the high. They would move to Jama Masjid where in the mad press of people they stole mobiles and picked pockets. A study by the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights on Substance Abuse revealed that every child involved in crime was consuming drugs.

It was on one such serendipitous day that he crossed paths with Constable Deshpande.



rman was flying kite-high when Faraz yelled, “Abe bhaag!” Run. Instead of running left with the boys, he turned right. A good chase later, Deshpande nabbed and dragged Arman to the Jama Masjid Chowki. He was on the phone to Noor explaining that her son had been caught stealing a mobile. By the time his mother arrived, Arman was feeling twitchy. It had been many hours since his last hit. Desperate to leave, he began getting rowdy in his chair.

“Your son is high,” the constable said.

His mother was ashamed. She offered feeble defences. She had raised six good children, good Muslims. Only this one had gone astray, she said. She muttered, “Jo Allah ki marzi.” Whatever God wills.

Fed up with the scene and taking pity on the boy, Deshpande encouraged her to sign papers that acknowledged her son was high and allowed consent for medical treatment. This was the first time anyone had recognised Arman’s drug abuse as an illness.

Arman had been watching this conversation with a mix of curiosity and anger. What could the officer be telling his mother? Why was his mother crying? Why was this taking so long? He was running on empty and his mother, instead of taking him home, left him behind.

Three officers walked over to escort Arman. He could barely stand. His fingers had stiffened and he walked into the courtroom of the Juvenile Justice Board with such calculated immobility that the judge could not but ask:

“What are you high on?” asked the judge. “Smack,” he said.

“Why?” he asked

Arman explained as best he could. That he was enslaved to an idea of permanent pleasure, to numbness, to avoid the pain. In a moment of weakness, he blurted out. “Only fools think drugs aren’t fun. If they weren’t, why would people do them?”

Arman  cried in pain. He cried for relief. He was given one tablet of buprenorphine. The House Father assured him that he would soon get respite. An hour later, Arman slept. Then the buprenorphine was stopped. The pain made way for insomnia and for 23 days he lay awake.

The judge had already sent more than his allotted share of children to a facility run by the Society for Promotion of Youth and Masses (SPYM), a one-of-its-kind rehabilitation centre at Kingsway Camp where juvenile delinquents get opioid substitution therapy. The Juvenile Deaddiction Centre was operating at double its capacity. Despite this, Arman was transferred to the centre. He was the youngest among 92 boys.

As soon as he arrived, Arman had diarrhoea. He cried in pain. He cried for relief. In anger, he stabbed at his own flesh. He was given one tablet of buprenorphine, an opioid used to treat addiction after a diagnosis by the on-site doctor. The House Father, a former heroin addict, assured him that he would soon get respite. An hour later, Arman slept. He slept for five days, sleep that had evaded him for years. Then the buprenorphinewas stopped. The pain made way for insomnia and for 23 days he lay awake in the dormitory.

“It was hell,” he recalled.



PYM’s deaddiction centre is a prison that feels like a school. There is a 10-foot wall around the compound topped with barbed wire to deter children from running away. Some manage to get away, all the same. The House Father at SPYM has seen it all. There was a boy who had sneaked in a blade, he hid it under his tongue when he was being admitted. Late in the night in the grips of withdrawal, he cut himself open. He slashed his neck and blood sprayed out, like a fountain. The entire dormitory was covered in blood.

The volunteer, a former drug addict who had been charged with culpable homicide, spoke of bad parenting where parents told a child that they would take the bus back home and expected him to take the train and return home with three stolen phones. There were many such cases, where a mother asked her child to get out fast. Many homes depended on robbery for income and de-addiction at SPYM seemed a luxury they could not afford.

In one case that shocked most at the centre, a boy’s father had murdered his mother and married another woman. He threatened him and pushed the boy so far that drugs did seem like a way out.

But for many children this was a chance at childhood. In the corner most room of the U-shaped building was the teachers’ classroom. All new arrivals would first sit a level test. Most of the children dropped out of school too early to remember how to read or write. One “repeater” had learnt how to write his name during his last stint at SPYM. Only a few could read the time. Even fewer could write the Hindi alphabet or the numbers. The most recent arrivals, with fresh razor cuts on their arms and face, were most irritable.

“I don’t know how to hold a pen,” said one.


For those uninterested in schoolwork, a plumber and an electrician came in for classes. Some found their place in the kitchen, cooking or washing dishes. They learnt many lessons at the Centre. Group leaders from Narcotics Anonymous came in and told them that “addiction was an illness”. Peer leaders, ex-addicts in recovery told them stories about their past. In Just for Today, they set goals that they wanted to achieve. Arman found his place in the centre of the stage, dancing. Soon he was leading a class of 20 boys.

“He’s a great dancer,” said the dance teacher, a former addict who had served time in Tihar.



PYM kept its boys busy. They woke at 6 and slept at 8. Each moment was accounted for. A child is a creature of routine. He craves consistency. The counsellor had explained this to Arman’s stepsister, his only visitor. When they returned to Seelampur, not much had changed. For the first few days, Arman tried to occupy himself but the temptation was too high. By the end of the week, he was back with the same boys, getting high once again.

The cycle repeated itself, only this time Arman was caught with a wallet at Jama Masjid. But something was different. When he returned to SPYM two months later, he seemed weaker and had an abscess on the back of his neck. Two officers escorted him to hospital where it was learnt that he was HIV+.

In one of the rare instances where Arman led his guard down, he told his House Father that he had begun shooting up. This was not an AIDS-aware, needle-wary group. Faraz had approached him, syringe in hand, needles piercing his bulging veins. He recalled blood entering syringes, sharing needles. Soon after, his physical deterioration had begun.

HIV is a major issue for drug addicts in India. There are 2.4 million infected people, placing India at number three in the world in terms of rate of infection. Intravenous drug users make up nearly 10 per cent of the affected group.

When the police returned to take him back to the doctors, they demanded gloves. The centre’s project-in-charge shouted, “You don’t get the disease through touch.” But everyone knew something had changed forever, even if they didn’t say it.

Soon after he was recovered from the rubbish dump, Arman returned to SPYM’s deaddiction centre. This was his third stint, third recovery, third chance. His mother made a rare appearance.

The counsellor read from her ledger on a Saturday when the parents of children visited. “Arman is jovial and friendly. He is a great dancer,” she told him. His mother cried. She had made biryani for him. She fed him with her own hands. Some boys peered in. They claimed to recognise her as a peddler. It didn’t matter on that day. She was just a mother.

She begged that they take her son away from her. The hardest thing any mother would have to do. Maybe it was the stigma of HIV+ or maybe she was telling the truth. The big bad world would swallow Arman. Perhaps there would be no next time. Perhaps all that awaited him now was death.

But the centre offers no guarantees either. When it decides that a child is ready to leave, parents are requested to bring the children in for a follow-up. In the first month, they are asked to report once a week, in the second month once a fortnight and then once a month in the third month. Seldom do parents follow these rules. Parents are encouraged to take their children to Narcotics Anonymous (NA) classes held in 50 locations, most often churches, around the city.

Parents are told about sponsors who would support an ex-addict’s recovery. Rarely do parents, desperately poor and busy working to earn a living wage, make it to the meetings. Policing is also an issue in a city where a large number of police are on VVIP duty. Police often apprehend the child and let him off. Often they are in bed with the dealer and so the cycle perpetuates.

Hundreds of children have come to the de-addiction centre and though there are successes, addiction is an illness that is never fully cured. The tragedy is that addicts are treated as criminals and not victims. Their identities are reduced to their drug of choice. Smackhead. Cokehead. Stoner. Junkie. Since victims are themselves participants in their own plight empathy is in limited supply and in a country where mental health issues are often shunned, Armans come and go all the time.

It costs the centre ₹1,350 per day, per child. Sources of funding are scarce. With society outside failing, Arman is just one of the many boys who have become institutionalised. But how long can they stay?

In the end, all that is left is hope.

*Names have been changed