| Adivasi | Gender |

Lives Withering Away Like Dried-up Trees

M Suchitra

16/03/2009 Dalit women taking pledge
Adivasi women taking pledge against illicit

I met Tulasi three years ago. I was on a visit to Palakayooru, a tiny settlement of the Irula tribe at Attappady Block, the remote adivasi region on the Western Ghats in Kerala's Palakkad district bordering Tamil Nadu. An undernourished, dark, 20-year-old mother of three, Tulasi told me about the gruesome murder of her husband Vellinkiri. A group of illicit liquor brewers in the nearby forest had poured spirit over his body and set him on fire, lest he should tip the police. He was unconscious and had severe burns all over his body when some tribesmen found him and took him to hospital. Vellinkiri was just 22 when he died.

As Tulasi told her story, her eyes had never welled up. I still remember her vacant look and the dry, monotonous voice. She had shown me two photographs of her husband, which she had kept in a small bamboo box. The first was of the unconscious Vellinkiri in a Coimbatore hospital, and the second, of his still body. The police had registered a case, she told me. She had hoped the pictures could be used as evidence for her husband's murder.

On a recent visit to this backward area, I hoped to see Tulasi once again and to find out if her husband's killers had been nabbed. Vellinkiri's murder had kicked up a hue and cry in Attappady.

But Tulasi had been dead several months ago. She had left Attappady for her native village in Tamil Nadu a few months after Vellinkiri's death, the tribespeople in Palakayooru told me. Nobody knew what had really happened to her. The police had dropped the murder case much before Tulasi's death.

The inhabitants of Palakayooru are now reluctant to talk about vattuchaaraayam -illicit liquor. "How many times and to how many people could we tell the same tales of woes?" a gray-haired man asks me. Besides, they have realized that nothing positive would happen, even if they open up to outsiders, including the media. They have been helplessly watching lives withering away like falling leaves all around them. Young lives of friends, relatives and family members.

In Palakayooru alone, which is home to just 30 families, there have been 20 illicit liquor-related deaths in the last 10 years-a half of them suicides. Nanjan, Maruthan, Rangan,Talan, 14-year-old Shelvan, Murukesh, and the 40-year-old woman, Maruthi, who had got addicted to chaarraayam and who set herself on to fire. Unable to cope with their traumas, many women such as Reshi, Renki and Kaliyamma, became mental wrecks.

How could then the people speak out? Even Velamma, who was outspoken last time, is tight-lipped. She is the ooru thalaivi (hamlet leader) of Thaikulasangham (groups of mothers)) formed by adivasi women to fight against liquor. An illiterate, she had directed a street play 'Kudikaran' (drunkard) and had inspired other women to stage the play in other hamlets. Now when I ask her whether there has been any change, she turns her face away. Then, after a while, slowly and hesitantly, she informs me that two young actors of the play died a few months ago after getting addicted to chaaraayam.

Palakayooru is not an isolated case. A majority of the 187 hamlets of the Irula, Muduga and the primitive Kurumba tribes in Attappadi-where total liquor prohibition has been in force since 1995-are under the grip of illicit liquor. While a strong lobby of outsiders, supported by the local contractor-turned-politicians, makes a fortune out of illicit liquor, it is the poor and underernourished tribes that consume the spurious drink. Many hamlets serve as centers for storage and sale of liquor. A scene from 'Kudikaran'
A scene from 'Kudikaran'

As I take a stroll around the site where a new bridge is being built across the River Bhavani near Chavadiyooru, another Irula settlement, I spot wage-labourers who take a break from their work in the searing midday sun and climb a hill where chaaraayam vendors wait for them. There, the tribal women told me, the vendors would take out hidden plastic bottles from behind a rock or a bush and pour the illicit brew into small steel tumblers for Rs. 10 each. Hunched on the rocks, the workers would drink the liquid-fire in one go and go back get back to work. Now I understand why Nanjamma of Palakayooru asked me for Rs 10.

In the late afternoons, illicit liquor is sold publicly at many points on the road from Agali-the administrative headquarters of Attappadi- to Anakkatti on the Tamil Nadu border. The last bus from Anakkatti to Agali that leaves late in the evening is full of boozers, both men and women-labourers, who have wasted their day's earnings on illicit liquor.

No wonder, the incidence of domestic violence, crimes by and against adivasis and harassment of the tribal women by outsiders is alarming. Psychic disorders and suicides, which were unheard of among the tribes till recently, are also on the increase.

"After sunset our ooru becomes a real hell," says Suma, 30, of Kallamala ooru in Agali gram panchayat whose husband and the brother-in-law committed suicide two years ago. "Whatever the men earn, they spend on liquor, and we, the women, raise our families all alone (on our own). How long can we pull on like this?" Many women, like Janaki, 30, of Veetiyooru, a Muduga hamlet, have sent their children to faraway hostels lest they would be addicted to illicit liquor. Most of them later on become dropouts. When I ask Janaki if there had been any liquor-related death in her ooru, she starts counting. After folding all the ten fingers, she glances at me and says, "six more." 16 young widows in 100-member community!

The excessive consumption of illicit liquor, that too on empty stomachs, has taken its toll on the health of the tribespeople, points out Prabhudas, who has been working in Attappady for 12 years as a government doctor. The primary health centre (PHC) in Pudur, where he works now, functions round the clock. On an average, Prabhudas treats 150 outpatients a day. The hospital ward with only 10 beds houses at least 50 patients at any point of time. Among them there are many with alcoholic hepatitis, acute anaemia, tuberculosis and gangrene. In Attappadi Block there are 300 gangrene patients, points out Prabhudas. The PHC has now started holding monthly psychiatric camps for the tribes.

"Excessive drinking has severely affected the fertility of the tribesmen, and consequently the tribal birth rate is falling," Prabhudas says. Since almost all the tribal women are severely anaemic due to hard work and malnutrition, 80 per cent of the newborns are underweight. Their survival chances are very low. In Attappady, the infant mortality rate (IMR) is four times higher than the state average of 12. And now, liquor-related deaths too. And most of them, men below 40.

Many concerned people, like Prabhudas, who know the pulse of the region, feel it's prohibition, which has led to the spread of the illicit liquor. Earlier, there were only a handful of people in each hamlet who were addicted to chaaraayam and they used to go to faraway toddy shops or chaaraayam shops. But all those shops folded when prohibition arrived. But now that liquor is available in and around the hamlets, even those who once hated alcohol have got addicted.

But will opening a few government-run liquor outlets solve the problem? Who will benefit from the outlets? The tribes or the settlers? Will the tribesmen from the remote settlements go to these outlets? And once the government starts selling liquor cheap, will not the illicit liquor makers too lower their price?

" To catch a thief will you employ another thief?" asks Bhagavathi of Karuvara, an Irula settlement. They have many more questions: "Why don't the authorities implement the prohibition effectively when chaaraayam was banned in the state in1996 and all liquor banned in Attappadi? Why were we forced to form Thaikulasangham and conduct excise raids when we struggle for our survival? How do the chaaraayam- makers get back the things we seize from them and hand over to the excise officials, the very next day? Why don't the excise inspectors nab the brewers even when we point out them? Why cases are charged under weak provisions? How do they manage to get bails so easily while our people suffer in jail?

The tribes in Attappadi are an extremely vulnerable community. They have been reduced to a minority in the last four decades (according to 2001 census they constitute only 41 percent of the population of the region), and they are living in the midst of their exploiters-settlers, middlemen, contractors, politicians, and, of course, some government officials. More over, they are the victims of development. A number of projects had been implemented in Attappadi for the welfare of the tribes, after it had been declared the most backward block in the state in1975. But none of the projects benefited the tribes. Instead, the mainstreaming process shattered the erstwhile self-sustained communities. The authorities should have at least considered the possible impacts of prohibition

Worse, the prohibition order has not been reviewed after imposing it 12 years ago. For effective implementation of prohibition, two high-power committees-one at the state level and the other at the district level-- had been formed in 2004. This first committee met only once in the last three years, and the other, despite meeting many times, never came up with significant decisions. Also, the excise office and the police stations are inadequately equipped to implement prohibition effectively in a difficult terrain with hills and forests that spreads over745 sq.kms. More than the apathy of the police and the excise officials and the threats and attacks from the chaaraayam lobby, what worries the tribal women who fight against liquor is the resistance from their own community. " We have suffered much at the hands of chaaraayam brewers.We don't mind that," says Bhagavathi. " But if our own people isolate us, no adivasi can face it." As a consequence, Thaikulasangham has become dysfunctional in most of the hamlets.

They don't know to whom should they now turn for help. They had petitioned the State Women's Commission as well as the Assembly Committee that inquires into the welfare of the Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes. They had also travelled for three hours by bus to Palakkad to meet the district authorities, and to Thiruvananthapuram to meet the Excise Minister. But, all invain.

As seventy-year old Maruthi of Sholayur sums up in her Irula dialect, "To make chaaraayam stronger, they skin the trees and put the bark in the brew. These trees eventually go dry and we use them as firewood. Just as those skinned trees, our lives too shrivel and go dry."

I can end this tale of tribal women's woes at this point. But that would be an injustice to the men. They are not the villains of the chaaraayam story-they are victims. They face deeper emotional traumas than their women do. Could it be that the arrogance and the aggressiveness of the settlers hit them harder? An average tribesman always wears the look of a scared hare-he is meek, introvert and withdrawn to himself. His gestures speak the language of submissiveness, and a lack of self-confidence is evident in whatever he does. Adivasi women outsmart adivasi men in most fields, even in communicating to outsiders in Malayalam (the official language of the state). Where women head the families, the men's inefficiency is more evident.

And, when the men take refuge in alcohol, their women grow more and more disgusted with them. The settlers fish in the troubled waters and lure the women. There are around 1700 betrayed adivasi mothers in Attappady.

Could it be that the tribesmen are emotionally shattered to such an extent that they have nothing to expect from their alienated lives?

They plead, though silently, for help. That is what I felt while talking to the man who introduced himself to me as " The King". It was late evening and I was having a chat with the women at Bhagavathi's home, when a craggy, tired-looking man with unsteady steps appeared in the doorway.

" I am King," he said as he lit a cigarette in Rajnikant style. As he spoke he used English words out of place-"see you, okay, bye-bye"-in an obvious effort to project confidence.

King's real name is Pazhani, the women told me. When Bhagavathi and others chided him for interfering in our conversation, the king shrank into himself. When they taunted him calling `kudikaaran' he lowered his head and stood silently.

"Pazhani, why do you drink so much?" sitting beside him, I asked.

" I have got nobody in this world," Pazhani mumbled without lifting his head. Then, slowly, he opened up. His father had drunk to death; his mother, forever with a hungry stomach, collapsed and died tending goats on a hill slope, his sister had been murdered by an Adivasi man. When he said "another adivasi man", Pazhani glanced at me and stopped abruptly.

I got up to leave. Suddenly he clutched my hands like a helpless child.

A gesture reverberating the silent screams of a deceived and devastated community.

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Comments (1)

The caption to your article 'Lives Withering Away Like Driedup Trees' appears apt-portraying the pathetic life style of adivasis. The illicit liquor withering and drying up the lives of the simple adivasis-just like the drying up of barks of trees- meaning to say that the illicit lquor is scorching the lives of these neglected adivasis-the comparison is really superb. Hoping there would be a downpour to soothen and save these plain and simple people from the chains of illicit liqour.

Since almost all the tribal women are severely anaemic due to hard work and malnutrition, 80 per cent of the newborns are underweight. Their survival chances are very low. In Attappady, the infant mortality rate (IMR) is four times higher than the state average of 12.

And, when the men take refuge in alcohol, their women grow more and more disgusted with them. The settlers fish in the troubled waters and lure the women. There are around 1700 betrayed adivasi mothers in Attappady.

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