Attapadi: Lessons on how the state should not tackle alcoholism

Attapadi: Lessons on how the state should not tackle alcoholism
Attapadi: Lessons on how the state should not tackle alcoholism
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The drive from Attapadi, a reserve forest in Kerala, to Annaikatti in Tamil Nadu takes not more than 25 minutes. Every evening, buses that ply from Attapadi to Annaikatti are full, with men jostling for space. When the last bus comes back from Annaikatti to Attapady, the same men return inebriated, having downed a few pegs at the liquor shops across the border.  

“The buses are turned into bars. Few drink inside the buses, others sing and enjoy. We are poor tribal women, and most men in the hamlets are turning into alcoholics. But there is no one to help us,” says Munima, whose husband is a regular passenger on the bus.  

Attapadi’s story is peculiar and disturbing. Made a non-liquor zone in 1996 by the then Chief Minister AK Antony, in 2002 former President Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam lead the Attappadi Declaration, calling the area as ‘liquor and drug free zone’. "Let us take a pledge today to abolish use of liquor and Ganja cultivation that is rampant in this most-backward tribal belt", announced President Kalam, administering an oath to a large gathering of tribals.  

Thirteen years later, Attapadi remains liquor-free on paper, but has five alcohol de-addiction centres for a total population of 70,000. Awareness programmes over the years seem to have had little effect. The non-availability of liquor has not reduced alcoholism, all men have to do is cross over to the neighbouring towns of Mannarkkad (Kerala) and Anaikatti (TN) for a peg or two.  

"It has been very convenient for the men because the bus stops wherever they want to get down. The bus conductors also make money, they do not give the balance amount to the drunk men," said Kaliammal, a promoter of the Integrated Tribal Development Programme.     

Even the auto-rickshaw drivers who work in Attapadi help people get liquor. "Every time auto drivers come back from Mannarkkad they bring liquor bottles. They are sure they will get buyers. They charge a nominal amount as commission too," said a local shopkeeper.  It is not just bottled liquor alone that is in vogue. “People make illicit country liquor inside the dense forests of the Silent Valley National Park. Ganja farms too are in plenty,” says Aravindakshan, who works at one of the de-addiction centres.  

Are the government and media responsible?  

Attapadi has a tribal population of around 30,000, mainly belonging to the Kurumba, Muduga and Irula tribes. The last few years has seen a lot of reportage on infant deaths and malnutrition in children and adults. These reports have in turn forced the government to provide a slew of measures for the tribals. A central government scheme provides ragi (a highly nutritious millet), while the state government runs a community kitchen that provides dinner to the tribes.  

As we walked around in the hamlets, news came that a Malayalam actor was sending truckloads of food and clothes, as part of his charity mission.  “Every time there is news about an infant death, some charity mission comes and stocks food in all tribal houses. The government gives them free meals, NREGA pays them money. The government has truly rendered people useless. Why are they not encouraged to work? Instead freebies are being doled out to men, women and children. With practically no need to take care of their houses or save money, what else will the men do? They drink,” says Kaliammal who counsels women as part of government programme and belongs to the tribal community herself.  

De-addiction centers  

Amritanandamayi ashram and Swami Vivekananda Mission run the biggest de-addiction centres in the region. "Youth of 18-21 age groups get addicted to ganja, while the adults seem to prefer liquor. It has been just few months since we started this centre here, but we have already had a steady stream of people who have come for treatment,” says Anjana of the Swami Vivekananda De-addiction Centre.  

The centres face considerable resistance from the men in the hamlets.  “An auto driver who was helping us in motivating people to join the centre was assaulted by villagers and his auto vandalized. We face a lot of resistance. Relapse is also common as tribals who undergo treatment go back to their lives of emptiness and start depending on liquor again,” says the man who runs the Amritanandamayi centre.  

The Kerala government has embarked on its mission to phase out alcohol. But the Attapadi story is a stark reminder that enforcing prohibition without motivating people to dump the bottle can prove to be costly.

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