Sinking in illicit liquor

Most men in tribal hamlets spend all their wages on hooch and women are doomed to shoulder the burden of their families

By M Suchitra
Published: Friday 12 July 2013

Hard work, lack of proper food and rest, repeated pregnancies and violence at home leads to poor physical and mental health of women in tribal villages on Attappady

A few years ago, Vellinkiri, a tribal youth from  Palakayooru, a tiny settlement of the Irula tribe in Attappady in Kerala’s Palakkad district, was found lying unconscious inside the forest.  Somebody had poured spirit over his body and set him on fire. It was probably illicit liquor brewers who might have been afraid he would tip off the police. Vellinkiri had severe burns all over his body and later died in a hospital. Vellinkiri was just 22 and left behind his 20-year-old wife Thulasi and three children.

Vellinkiri’s murder kicked up a big hue and cry in Attappady. A case was registered and the investigation proceeded for a while, but the case was later dropped “for want of evidence”. 

In Palakayooru, which is home to just 30 families, there have been more than 20 illicit liquor-related deaths in the last 15 years, many of them said to be suicide cases—Nanjan, Maruthan, Rangan,Talan, 14-year-old Shelvan, Murukesh, and 40-year-old Maruthi, who got addicted to illicit liquor and set herself on to fire. The trauma tragically affected the mental health of many women like Reshi, Renki and Kaliyamma who had lost members of their family to the addiction.

Like Palakayooru, many of the 192 tribal hamlets of Attappady are severely affected by illicit liquor. Veettiyooru, a Muduga settlement with about 100 residents, has about 15 young widows aged between 25 and 35. “There are a few settlements where only women, children and the elderly are left,” says P K Bhagavathi, president of Thaikula Sangham, a group of tribal women formed a few years ago to fight the spread of  vattucharayam, as illicit liquor is known. Women and school children, too, have started consuming the alcoholic substance, she says.

Attappady is a place where total prohibition on liquor is in force. After an order from the district administration in 1995, all toddy shops in the block closed shutters and the tapping of toddy was banned.  A state-level ban on manufacturing, possessing and consuming illicit liquor came into force in 1996.  

However, in Attappady, where many settlements still lack drinking water, illicit liquor is available in abundance. “Brewing takes place in interior settlements on the hill tops. It is then brought to other hamlets and sold,” says B Udaya Kumar, an activist with Thampu, an organization working for the development of tribes.  Many hamlets serve as storage centres. A 50 ml packet costs Rs 30-40.

The sale of the liquor can take place anywhere. In the late afternoons, it is sold at many points on the road from Agali, the administrative headquarters of Attappady, to Anakkatti on the Tamil Nadu border. The last bus from Anakkatti to Agali that leaves late in the evening is full of drunken men and female labourers, who have wasted their day's earnings on a drinking binge.

Vicious cycle

Addiction to illicit liquor is one of the main reasons behind increasing poverty among the tribal communities in Attappady. Most men spend all their wages on hooch and women are doomed to shoulder the burden of their families. Pregnant women work till their child is born, and then return to work a few days after delivery. Hard work, lack of proper food and rest, repeated pregnancies, violence at home and no peace of mind at the end of the day—all this leads to poor physical and mental health among women.

“How can they be expected to deliver healthy babies?,” asks K Kaali,  resident of Naickerpady settlement and active member of Thayikula Sangham. Many mothers are forced to send their children to a faraway residential school for tribal children, lest they get addicted to charayam.

Fertility affected

The excessive consumption of illicit liquor, that too on an empty stomach, has taken its toll on the health of tribal men. Alcoholic hepatitis is common. Besides, due to excessive drinking, male fertility is declining, points out Prabhudas, recently-appointed nodal officer for coordinating health services for tribes in Palakkad district. On the other hand, abortions, stillbirths and infant deaths due to low birth weight are on the rise. High incidence of deaths among men between the age of 20-45 has also  been observed.

“The situation is extremely grave,” says Prabhudas who has worked in Attapady for the past 20 years. 

Kaali points out that many among the tribal communities in Attappady have undergone sterilisation during the state’s family planning drive in the 1970s and 80s. “As part of meeting targets, health inspectors forced them to undergo sterilisation by offering incentives,” she points out. “If this situation continues tribal communities in Attappady might go extinct soon,” says Bhagavathi.

Outsiders make fortunes

K R Ajith, preventive officer of the excise office in Agali , the headquarters of Attappady, and Manoj Kumar, the circle inspector point out violence and conflicts, atrocities against women mostly by outsiders are increasing due to spreading alcoholism. “On an average, 80 illicit liquor-related cases are registered in this circle,” says Kumar.
“It’s the tribals who brew, sell and consume the illicit liquor,” says Ajith. According to him, organising raids are not easy in Attappady because of difficult terrain with hills and forests. “ It’s a big block as large as Alappuzha district,” points out Ajith. The excise office has only 20 staff members and one vehicle, he points out. “The moment we start from here for a raid, brewers get information about it,” he says.

However, according to tribal activists, there  is a strong liquor lobby behind this brewing business. They say adivasis are exploited by outsiders who make a huge profit out of this. “Huge quantity of illicit liquor is taken from Attappady to various faraway places in Tamil Nadu and Kerala,” says B Udayakumar, a tribal activist from Chittoor settlement.  Activists allege that this lobby is keeping adivasis as a front. There are a few local politicians who have made good fortunes from this, they add. 

Activists point out that when excise officers catch the brewers, they register  cases with weak charges. “Only if we catch them red-handed while brewing we can register strong case,” says Ajith. “Many times we leave them without charging cases on humanitarian ground since the accused are poor adivasis and brewing is their livelihood,” he adds. But why this humanitarian considerations only in the case of illicit liquor? ask the tribal activists.

Thayikula Sangham was active initially. The group had formed units in all  settlements and had conducted awareness programmes through skits and songs. “We had even held raids and seized wash and brewing vessels many times,” says Bhagavathi.  But the group did not get support from anybody that time—excise or police. Instead, many a times seized vessels have returned into the hands of the brewers, says Maruthi. “We have suffered much at the hands of the brewers,” says Bhagavathi. But when their men started isolating them in their settlements, they were terribly demoralised, she says. Almost all mooppans (chiefs) are addicted to liquor, they point out.

No prohibition?

Interestingly, both Ajith and Kumar insist there is no total prohibition in force in Attappady. Both of them refer to a hoarding that has appeared recently at Goolikkadavu, a market centre near Agali, the headquarters of the block. The content of the hoarding is a reply from the public information officer, Excise Enforcement & Anti-Narcotics Social Squad, Palakkad, to an application filed by a retired sub inspector under the Right to Information Act.

The hoarding says that total prohibition on liquor is not in force in Attappdy, and any individual in Kerala can keep three litres of foreign liquor for consumption without permission, and people in Attappady, too, can do it, and cops of the excise and the police departments cannot take away that citing total prohibition!  Nobody bothered to remove this hoarding even when the ministers who visited Attappady after the death of 30 babies this year due to malnutrition accepted that alcoholism among the tribes has grown to dangerous levels.

Quite naturally, activists of Thayikula Sangham, are furious.  “Why then all the toddy shops here are closed? Why now even toddy tapping is banned?” they ask. There are even moves to open outlets of Beverages Corporation in Attappady in the name of saving adivasis from illicit liquor, they say.

They insist the hoarding is the  first step in paving way  for opening the liquor outlets. “There are many resorts coming up in Attappady, and some of them have encroached on adivasi land. This no-prohibition theory is for helping resorts get liquor to cater to their customers,” says Kaali.


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