The Promised Land

“Mummy, how are the conditions in the tribal colonies of your panchayath?” I asked my mother-in-law as I turned to a narrow mud road. “Oh, they (tribal population) are in better status now, they have now concrete houses, electricity facilities, bore-wells, toilets everything provided from the panchayath; they have daily labour here in addition, so what bothers them? Now they are like non-tribal or even better than the non-tribal”. My mother-in-law is the panchayath vice president of her village and she is very enthusiastic about women empowerment activities in her panchayath. During my Onam holiday visit to my home, I was accompanying her to an orientation program for self-help groups under the district Kudumbasri mission organized in the tribal colony of her panchayath. Her reply regarding the status of the tribal population did not cause any reaction in my mind because this is what I usually hear in routine conversations with friends and neighbors and this reflects the popular perception about the tribal population in our village. But I knew in my mind that this is not the story of the tribal population.

After a two kilometer ride along the mud road, we reached the meeting place in a rubber plantation. The attendees were predominantly Paniya tribal women who included young mothers, middle aged women, elderly women, children and teenagers. The women and children in general looked poorly built and emaciated.  After the lunch provided in the meeting the teenagers started slowly dispersing. The children were playing around; some of the young mothers were chatting and milling about and a few elderly women were sitting around and chewing beetle-nut. Mummy sat with Kudumbashree coordinator and trainers to sign the vouchers and to settle the bills. I pulled a chair and sat among Mayamma, Chomakka, and Chendi, three elderly tribal women.

“Enthokke unde sare visheshangal?”(How are things going with you, Sir?, Chomakka asked me in a familiar tone. I was meeting them for the first time. But they were quick to start a conversation as though we knew each other for a long time.

My chat with the women and subsequent visit to their colony revealed the poverty and malnutrition of the tribal community. I realized that some of the major problems that the community faced today was chronic alcoholism, out-break of viral infectious diseases in the monsoon, early school dropout, conflict with law, exploitation in the name of work, and debt trap which kept them in perpetual poverty and poor nutritional status.

First, let me discuss the problem of alcoholism in the tribal community. Mayamma lashed out in her anger and frustration, “there is nothing to eat in the colony; we are old and nobody gives us any work, only once in a while they (pointing to the young women) get some work and with that money we have to live for so many days. We get free rice from the ration shop (Under Antyodaya Anna Yojana schemes) and we eat only that for many days. The men in the colony do nothing but drink with whatever the money they get and then they quarrel with us, with their wives and children. These poor (the younger women) women have all the responsibilities now. Earlier they used to buy it (alcohol) from Ulikkal shop (Kerala Government Beverage shop); now that it is closed and they have started brewing at home, even small children have started drinking”.

Alcoholism is very rampant in the colony and when the major portion of the family income is diverted to buying alcohol there is less to spend on food. This adversely affects the nutritional status of the family, particularly the mother and the children. From the account of Mayamma,  it was clear that the problem of alcoholism is of relatively recent origin in the community, since alcohol was not traditionally a part of their lives. Mayamma reported that in her childhood a bottle of charaayam (country liquor) was brought to the colony only during festival season and it was shared among the whole community and the amount each consumed was so little to result in intoxication. Then, when and how did the habit of alcoholism overpower this tribal community? Based on what I heard from my grand-parents who migrated to this place in their childhood and my parents who were born and brought up in this area I am trying to make a historical and cultural account of alcoholism in the tribal community in the area..

The colony is situated in the Ayyankunnu Grama Panchayat of Kannur District of Kerala and the present inhabitants of the region are predominantly migrants from Travancore. Prior to the 1920s, only the tribal communities inhabited the panchayath, which was covered with dense forest. During this time, this part of Malabar was under British regime. A severe famine in the erstwhile Travancore kingdom of Kerala induced mass migration of non-tribal people from Travancore to the hilly region of Malabar in search of fresh pasture for cultivation. This mass migration brought the juxtaposition of two different cultural and economic systems.

 At the base of the differentiation between the tribal and non-tribal, was the difference in the relationship each maintained with the land and the ecologic system. When the migrants (who comprised mostly Christians) came to this land, they were evoked by the Biblical assertion that human beings have the dominion over the land. This assertion speaks of the migrants’ belief and resultant relationship with the land that is marked by their separation from the natural world. It also emphasizes their right to use the land and its resources for their survival. However, among the tribal communities, the cultural concept of the land stood in sharp contrast to this. The tribal communities consider themselves as part of the ecological system and not as masters of it. They maintained a symbiotic relationship with the nature around them. They considered themselves as part of a spiritual world that comprised of animals, plants, and other forces of nature and believed in harmonic coexistence with them. The concept of land ownership was alien to the tribal. The new migrants who came to the hilly regions of Malabar brought the concept of individual land ownership. For them land was a means of production for their private use, with which they could maximize their profits. The non-tribal migrants started appropriating the land as individual property and the tribal communities started losing their land in the process. Hence, for subsistence they had to depend on the non-tribal migrants. This led to increasing interaction between the tribal and the non-tribal.

The loss of land and the changes to the ecological system created by the commercial farming of the non-tribal caused a major threat to the tribal culture. Initially, the cultivation in this area was rice, tapioca, and lemongrass, then people started cultivating cashew-nut and coconut.  The culture of the tribal community was evolved in a way that helped them to adapt to their ecological system. Now, with the rapid changes in the ecology, their cultivation, their food habits, their health care practices and their social structure started changing. With the limited land resources, the tribal had to depend on the non-tribal for their subsistence. In many instances, the tribal in this area became the laborers in the agriculture fields owned by the non-tribal.

Another major change that happened during this period was the increasing availability of alcohol in the region. Along with the cultivation many of the migrants started brewing illicit alcohol. As the cultivation of cashew tree increased, people started brewing illicit alcohol in their houses. The juice extracted from cashew fruits was largely used for brewing illicit alcohol. On one hand, the sale of illicit alcohol fetched them easy money and on other hand the alcohol was given to the laborers in the field who were mostly tribal, to engage them in dangerous and hazardous job. There are also instances reported where the tribal people were given excessive amount of alcohol and their thumb impressions were taken on the documents to extract the remaining small patch of land that belonged to them while they were intoxicated. There are reported cases of sexual abuses from the neighboring village of Aralam where tribal women were abused after intoxicating them.

Now, cashew plantations are largely replaced by the rubber plantations and with this liquor brewing has also reduced due to the substantial unavailability of the cashew fruits. In addition, the social stigma attached with the sale of illicit alcohol also caused many families to stop brewing alcohol. Consequently, alcohol became a costly commodity in the village. By now many of the tribal men in the village had become addicted to alcohol. Earlier alcohol was given to them as an incentive for the hard labour they did, but now alcohol is given as part of their wage. Many a time the price of alcohol is deducted from their wage. The tribal men who were less conversant with the modern economic terms do not think about saving for tomorrow. With the loss of land they lost everything, their cultivation, their river, their deity, their traditional health care system and their relationship with their community. Chronic alcoholism has resulted in the disruption of their family and social systems and fights and episodes of violence are frequent within families and colonies. The destruction of ecology which occurred over the last few decades has led to the destruction of the tribal culture also.

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As I attended my routine Sunday morning holy mass, I heard Fr. Clement, in his usual Sunday oration speaking eloquently “Our grand parents migrated to this land of Malabar and they braved against the harsh weather, wild animals, malaria, and dense forest. They have carved out  a beautiful paradise for us. God blessed us with wealth and prosperity…….”. In essence, he was comparing the Malabar mass migration to the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt to Canaan. Yes, there is material prosperity everywhere; every inch of land is now covered with rubber trees, the old thatched huts are now replaced by concrete marvels. The Achayans (Syrian Christians hailing from central Travancore) have further migrated and are spread out across the globe, capturing newer horizons and dealing in dollars. Even the babies yet to be born are aspiring to continue the legacy. With the imported dollars they have moved on to towering sky-scrapers. But down in the earth, its ecology and the tribal who once protected them are slowly ailing to death...