The dilemma of drink in India’s tribal areas

Should tribals regularly consuming home-brewed alcohol be let off as a cultural practice, or should it be targeted just like any other unhealthy practice?

By Abhijeet Jadhav
Published: Thursday 24 October 2019
A typical 'Hadiya' shop. Photo: Abhijeet Jadhav

Tilaisud is a tribal village in the interiors of Jharkhand’s West Singbhum district. Rice cultivation through traditional methods and hunting-gathering are the main subsistence activities.

People keep some livestock like hens and ducks but never cows or buffaloes. There is a belief among the tribes that the milk of any animal is exclusively for its own progeny, and it is a sin to take it for oneself.

No one, including children, drinks milk here. Mahua flowers are greatly valued in the local diet as well as trade. The tribals sell the dried flowers to local alcohol makers.

Life is tough here, and till recently, there were no proper roads or electricity. Illiteracy and malnutrition are quite high here, and the village is a typical representative of the region.

In this region, most of the households brew rice beer. Everyone drinks the hadiya, including children. The origin of this tradition goes long back in history.

After getting up early in the morning, people start performing their daily chores. Around 11 am, there is a break due to fatigue, heat and hunger. Traditionally they used to have very less food and, in this break, they used to eat the leftover rice from the previous day’s dinner.

However, that rice used to be so less that people used to make gruel out of it and sip it. At times, this liquid used to remain unused and start stinking. Over a period, people learned a technique to fast forward the fermentation process of this rice using a special mix of various herbs, leading to hadiya.

It has alcohol as well as other substances which give a different type of high. This is due to the herbs that are added at the start of the brewing process. It is made in a couple of days and needs to be consumed in a couple of days. Beyond that, it becomes bad.  

A typical vessel used to make hadiya is a thuba which used to be a container made out of leaves. It has an average capacity of half a litre.

Today, they have steel containers of similar shape. Hadiya has a sweetish and astringent taste, unlike other alcoholic beverages. Many women also sell it at the rate of ten rupees a thuba, especially on the day of the weekly market. It is also offered to guests.

A couple of thubas are enough to fill one adult’s stomach, and then there is no more hunger. Slowly, it gives you a high and makes you slow and calm. By afternoon, everyone reaches a high and sleeps.

After getting up, a few people go for work if they have anything to do on their farms or continue drinking. Chilies, along with salt, is a typical side dish. Most of the day passes by in this state.

Children are given the same thing to drink throughout the day. In the evening, women prepare some food, and that is the only time when a proper meal is served.

Effect on children

Hadiya retards or calms hunger and makes people sleepy. This has an implication on nutrition, especially for children. In this area, one comes across many malnourished children.

Children do not ask for food once they have Hadiya. They do not even munch on natural edibles. Children’s habit of munching stuff is very important from the nutritional point of view.

There is absolutely no milk consumption and most children have never tasted milk. The hunting practices have reduced to a significant level due to government policy and other factors, affecting protein quantum in the diet. Jharkhand is among the top rankers for malnutrition, with 45.3 per cent under-five children stunted and 47.8 per cent under-weight (according to the National Family Health Survey-4).

Effects of such practices on child health are not dramatic but slow. Hence, health practitioners cannot perceive the linkages between malnutrition and such practices. The effect of Hadiya consumption has hardly been examined.

It is proven beyond doubt that excessive or regular alcohol consumption has adverse health effects including cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancers, liver diseases and pregnancy. According to the Global Burden of Diseases Survey 2017, alcohol is the fourth leading cause of death among men.

Tradition or bad habit?

India’s per capita alcohol consumption has an increasing trend with 2.4 litres in 2005 to 5.7 litres in 2016, according to the World Health Organization. The government has a three-pronged strategy to curb this — higher taxes, regulated sale, and a ban on advertising.

However, home-made alcohol consumption in tribal villages is inert to such policy steps. There is not much literature on health impact or related policy in such tribal areas.

The consequences are far deeper. There is not much investment in the future. Among the alcohol dependents, it is established that their emotions and activities are all around drinking and the pursuit of greater good stops.

The important concern is, should all the consequences of the drinking habit be neglected by saying it is a cultural practice, or it should be targeted just like any other unhealthy practice of a community. It is not easy to answer this sensitive question.

Though these are matters of individual choice and basic human rights, to what extent these are informed or well-thought-of choices is a concern. Experts have argued from both sides, but when it comes to the health of young ones and the future generation, the sense of urgency may surpass.

There is an association of this habit with illiteracy, school dropouts, malnutrition, and low employment. Men and women live without aspirations and pass every day with minimalistic self-expectations.

More scientific studies are needed to understand the issue and find solutions. The traditional solutions will not work, but the new intervention needs to be a culturally sensitive one.

Abhijeet Jadhav works with the Vikas Anvesh Foundation

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