In the wake of rising drug and alcoholism among Keralites, the state government recently launched a major campaign "Subodham" to help people in the state overcome alcohol, drug and other substance abuse. The project was launched by Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and Art of Living Foundation founder Sri Sri Ravishankar in the presence of religious leaders, representatives of student organisations and NGOs working against drug abuse.
"The state government aims to wipe out the menace of substance addiction from our society through 'Subodham'. If total alcohol prohibition could save the society, the state government is ready to forego the revenue from the sale of liquor that is around Rs 7,000 crore per annum," said Chandy.
Sri Sri Ravishankar said: "Kerala can become a model-state in anti-alcohol and drug awareness as well as rehabilitation initiatives. This initiative is very much a need of the hour. It will be a great achievement if we can implement the project successfully."
The "Subodham" project, envisaged by the excise department, will be implemented by a high-level committee comprising experts from various fields.
Excise Minister K. Babu, who is also the chairman of "Subodham", said: "The campaign aims to free one lakh people from drug and alcohol addiction each year. "'Subodham' heralds the first step towards 'Punarjani 2030 Project', a state government initiative to completely eradicate the menace of substance abuse in Kerala." The state education department, meanwhile, agreed to include anti-drug and alcohol awareness content in the state curriculum from the next academic year.
The problem is causing serious social problems in the state. A recent survey said about 74 per cent of the children between the age group 5 and 18 in the state use tobacco. The study was conducted by National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences where a total of 119 children were covered examining their pattern, profile and substance use. Alcohol, tobacco and inhalants are common initial substances of abuse and have been described as 'gateway substances'. These substances are easily available to the children, according to the revelations in the research.
Most of these products are not illegal and there is some form of social acceptance for their use. However, the use of these "gateway substances" increases the subsequent risk of transition to harder and illicit substances.
The study is part of a nationwide exercise under the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) which had closely examined 4,024 children across 27 states and two union territories of the country.
Kerala has been in the news recently again for the wrong reasons. The state has the highest per capita liquor consumption in the country (over 8 liters per person a year), surpassing traditionally hard-drinking states such as
Punjab and Haryana. It's
estimated that 5 per cent of the state's population (roughly one in 10 men) is
addicted to liquor.
Drug-related cases have been on the rise in the state. In April alone 67 cases were registered in the state and the excise department seized 84.65 kg of drugs. In Thiruvanthapuram alone, nine cases were registered and 25 kg of ganja was seized. Drugs come to Kerala mainly from Andhra Pradesh and Odisha.
Meanwhile, the police are facing a new problem. With the Kerala government's decision to drastically reduce availability of liquor, as part of a policy to implement total prohibition in 10 years, it has given rise to a fast-growing parallel market for its substitutes ranging from illicit brews and adulterated toddy to narcotics and even Ayurveda medicines containing alcohol.Many ayurvedic drug manufacturers increasing the alcohol content in arishtam and other medicines. One can find several youngsters taking ayurvedic drugs to get a high. Several lesser known ayurvedic shops are selling arishtams with high alcohol content, prompting police, excise and drug control departments to intensify raids and tighten control over the industry.
Substance abuse is a serious problem among youngsters in Kerala. A recent survey found about 74 per cent school
children use tobacco products - gate way to drugs .
Dr D Ramanathan, secretary at Ayurveda Medicine Manufacturers Association of India, said that out of about 380 ayurvedic drug manufacturing units in the state only about 30 to 35 units, or less than 10%, are manufacturing stronger arishtams for tipplers. At the same time, sales of arishtams of established, genuine players in the industry have fallen by 20%-25% because retailers have started reducing their stocks of arishtams fearing excise raids. "They (retailers) are taking only smaller quantities and as a result the total sales have fallen," Dr Ramanathan said.
"In the 1960s, when there was prohibition in Kerala, some ayurveda companies sold such arishtams and ended up making a fortune," he said. It's not just makers of arishtam who are looking to make a fortune from Kerala's current prohibition policy. In most parts of the state there's a sudden revival in demand for country liquor, as the government has closed 418 bars and 10% retail outlets, steeply increased prices of liquor, and also declared Sunday as a dry day. Country made arrack distilled from fruits and prepared without any artificial ingredients might be safe to drink. But in many cases, liquor sold to the people is made with harmful ingredients like chemicals.
"Some chemicals added in the right proportion can make the drink more potent," said Jithesh R, an expert in the manufacture of arrack. "In normal case we use jaggery, water, toddy, fruits, cinnamon, thathiri flowers (fire flame bush), etc, which is kept for 15 days before being taken out and boiled and distilled," he said.
Use of chemicals can help reduce the fermentation period to five days, but it is not safe and can have serious health consequences, Jithesh said. Rush at local toddy shops too has increased of late. The government has said it will protect toddy - a drink taken from the coconut palm.
But the problem is, good toddy is hard to get. "What we get is mostly adulterated toddy," said Roshy A, a toddy shop owner in Alappuzha district. Excise raids have confirmed the use of harmful chemicals such as sodium lauryl sulphate in toddy. Some recent reports said that a cocktail of five chemicals like sodium bicarbonate, saccharine and titanium dioxide and pharma products like tranquilisers are mixed with toddy to give it the required "effect".
Those who are against prohibition claim that the state's policy would encourage use of drugs among youths. The number of narcotic cases registered by the excise department has increased substantially in recent months. Contraband seized recently include ganja, ganja paste, ampoules of drugs that can be injected and brown sugar.
An excise official said drug peddlers are chasing regular consumers of liquor besides school and college going students - as confirmed by recent arrests of some drug peddlers in the vicinity of bars. "It is convenient for the user (of alcohol) as the price is cheap, there is no foul smell and the intoxication, in most cases, lasts longer," the person said