Malabar Mail: Celebrating the spirit of the region

Wayanad’s shrinking Adivasi communities bonded to the bottle

Alcoholism is ruining the life and future of Wayanad’s shrinking Adivasi communities

Nightlife in Wayanad’s tribal hamlets used to be fun. After a day’s hard work on the coffee plantations and rice fields and wanderings in the wild looking for forest produce, men and women of all ages would gather in the middle of the hamlet, under the open sky.

Rustic music, primitive dance steps, and ethnic food would sweep away the sweats and aches of the day. The sounds of thudi and chenaum would waft across the nearby hills and valleys.

Those nights of simple joys and warm togetherness are almost gone from the tribal landscape. Nightlife in several hamlets now is punched with drunken brawls, shouts and curses, shrieks of women, and husband-wife squabbles. The villain: the bottle.

‘Snakes’ on the dirt road

Alcoholism is ruining the life and future of the Adivasi community which makes up close to a fifth of Wayanad’s population. Liquor is an addiction for a huge number of tribal men — teenagers included — and women. Go to the small towns any time, you could see drunk tribesmen wobbling around the streets; go to the villages, you could see tribesmen lying semi-conscious on dirt roads, by the riverside, in the fields, under the trees. They are called paamp (snake). The rising tribal alcoholism is now drawing the attention of researchers and NGOs.

Wayanad has the largest tribal population in Kerala. Nearly a half of them are Paniyas, followed by Kurichiya, Kuruma and Kattunayaka communities. In the past, Adivasis were the main dwellers of Wayanad, and the lands and jungles were their domain. But over the past couple of centuries, the demographics, along with the landscape, changed.

British coffee

The British started setting up modern plantations in the nineteenth century, thus upsetting the tribespeople’s traditional order, lifestyle, and economy. When the demand for coffee, tea, and spices went up and other conditions became favourable, more plantations arose. The vast fertile forest land and cheap Adivasi labour helped coffee and tea plantations flourish. Slavery and bonded labour rendered labour cheap.

Though the tribespeople were gradually released from bonded labour post-Independence, they got enslaved to liquor, tobacco, and cannabis with the arrival of settler farmers from the beginning of 1950s. Many a settler farmer used tobacco and liquor to grab their land.

“Many socio-economic factors have helped drive the indigenous people to the clutches of alcohol,” says M. Balan, a tribal activist at Poothadi. “For instance, a majority of them are landless,” he adds.

Ginger farming

Another factor is the emergence of a new farming class that cultivates ginger on a large scale on leased land in nearby districts of Karnataka. Tempted by ginger fortunes, there has been an influx of settler farmers from Wayanad to Karnataka. These farmers hire tribespeople, especially Paniyas, who need to stay on in Karnataka for months on end. To make them stay, the farmers use the alcohol bait. By the time the tribal workers return to Wayanad, they are hooked to alcohol. The result is the rise of a community of addicts. “The Health Department recently opened a de-addiction centre at Kalpetta, but very few tribal people make use of it,” says Dr. Jostin Francis, consultant Psychiatrist at General Hospital, Kalpetta.

Rise in crimes

Crime rate is very high in certain tribal colonies, especially those located on Wayanad’s borders with Tamil Nadu and Karnataka where cheap liquor is available. Tribespeople spend a major portion of their daily wages on alcohol. Drinking has reduced their life expectancy, not to mention the rise in child marriages and teenage pregnancies. And more worryingly, it is causing dropouts from schools and even professional institutions. Wayanad is now emerging as a tourist destination, and the general population is getting the benefits too. But the Adivasi community is left out. Though the system of bonded labour is gone, thousands of Adivasis in the district remain bonded to the bottle.

(MALABAR MAIL is a weekly column by The Hindu’s correspondents that reflects Malabar’s life and lifestyle)

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Printable version | Mar 26, 2020 6:05:03 PM |

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