Chendu, a tribal from Alirajpur in Jhabua district, beat his wife to death. Reason? She asked him to stop drinking. In the same block, another young man killed his brother with an arrow when the latter tried to extract toddy from the palm trees owned by him.
Often the reasons for murders or fatal assaults here are as mundane as someone's hen entering the neighbour's territory or someone's refusal to lend a 'bidi' (leaf rolled cigarette) to a friend. In all these crimes, either the killer or the victim or both are high on alcohol, reports Grassroots Features.
Alcoholism is taking a heavy toll on the socio-economic life of the tribal population. According to an official from the department of tribal development, the age-old problem of excessive drinking in tribal areas is affecting the new generation too.
"One can see teenagers brewing 'arrack' (local brew) in front of their houses. There is lack of conscious effort from the community to prevent youngsters from becoming hard-core addicts," he said.
This reflects on the literacy rate and high dropout percentage in the district, the highest in the state.
"The attendance in schools also comes down especially during October to March when toddy tapping starts in certain regions of the district. Several students show up for classes drunk while others sneak off for a nip or two of toddy from the nearby palm groves," said Sanjay Solanki, a teacher.
Efforts are underway to counter alcoholism among tribals, though the progress is not very encouraging. Since alcoholism is also associated with starvation and unemployment, the district administration tried an innovative method to make use of toddy to generate gainful employment.
The project started in November 2004 in Bhavari village in Alirajpur. "We gave training to one Bhim Singh and his family, who owned 10 toddy palms, to make palm gur (sugar) out of toddy," said Rajkumar Pathak, the district collector of Jhabua.
The logic of the administration was - a family with 10 toddy palms involved in making gur can earn up to Rs.16,000 a season, while through sale of toddy it can earn only less than half that amount.
The officials in the district administration thought that since gur making was more profitable, more and more tribals would change over from the toddy business. "This would not only improve their financial situation but also reduce the number of crimes in the area," said Pathak.
However, this did not happen. Although Bhim Singh is very happy with his newfound enterprise, there are not many takers for it among his community.
The district administration has managed to convince only three more families to pursue gur-making. One reason for the failure of this project was the tribals' love for toddy. "No one wants to leave toddy," said Shankar of Khedut.
But many people feel that if effective marketing strategies were in place the new enterprise could have done better. In states like Orissa and Karnataka, it is catching up well.
Despite the setback in the gur-making project, the district administration has not lost hope. It is encouraging tribals to sell fresh, unfermented toddy for making 'neera', a health drink. Unfermented toddy is very sweet and healthy. But fermented toddy contains 50-60 percent alcohol, making it a highly intoxicating beverage.
"We are working on this project. Our effort is to encourage more and more people to sell toddy for making neera so that there is a shortage of toddy for making alcohol," said Pathak. The administration has approached the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) for processing and marketing neera.
Sources in KVIC say that it is working on the proposal. With suitable technological intervention as prescribed by the Pune-based National Chemical Laboratory, neera's shelf life can be enhanced to six months.
"Neera contains a number of minerals and salts; acids like ascorbic acid, nicotinic acid and riboflavin; proteins and vitamin C. It has less calorific value, apart from being sweet and delicious. It can give mineral water a run for its money," said A.K. Sharan of KVIC.
According to Sharan, neera can enhance the income of a farmer. One palm tree yields four litres of toddy a day. So if a farmer has 100 trees it would become 400 litres. The same could be sold at the rate of Rs.10 a litre, amounting to Rs.600,000 for the season lasting five months.
Although it makes a lot of economic sense, weaning away the tribals from the toddy business is an onerous task. "It all depends on the commitment on the part of the administration. If the government really wants to counter alcoholism then it should stop promoting foreign liquor also," said Shankar.
Alcoholism is linked to high incidences of crime in the district. According to the state crime records bureau, in 2005 there were 124 murders in the district -- the highest among all districts in the state.
"In more than 50 percent cases, alcohol was a factor," said Avinash Sharma, the assistant superintendent of police, Jhabua. "Tribals are very simple people. But once they consume alcohol they get violent even on trivial issues and use fatal weapons against each other."
The crime rates are very high in certain blocks, especially Alirajpur and Jobat. Toddy palms are found in abundance in these blocks.
A survey by the Adivasi Sewa Shikshan Samiti in 2004 revealed that 10 percent of the tribal population in the district could be termed "heavy drinkers". About 80 percent of the addicts in the district are below poverty line.
"An average tribal family spends between 60-70 percent of its income on alcohol. It was found that if a person is a 'desi' (local) liquor addict, he spends a minimum of Rs.400 a month on it. But for a person addicted to foreign liquor, his bills touch up to Rs.3,000-3,500 a month," said Benedict Damor, secretary of the samiti. Even poor families spend huge amounts - to the tune of Rs.25,000-30,000 on alcohol alone during marriages.
The alcohol industry is the only flourishing business in this district. In 2007, the contract for the sale of liquor in Jhabua district was auctioned at Rs.100 million.
For Jhabua, where 47 percent of the population is below the poverty line and 85 percent is tribal, this is a huge sum. The officials in the excise department say the turnover from the sale would be anywhere between three to four times this amount. Besides, toddy and desi liquor (almost like a cottage industry) are available freely and cheaply.
However, Benedict Damor, who campaigned extensively against alcoholism, feels that prohibition is not a solution to this problem.
"Alcohol is an integral part of tribal culture. But consuming alcohol as part of rituals or festivities is different from alcoholism. Alcoholism is linked to illiteracy, impoverishment and many other factors. But there should be a concerted effort from within the community to do away with such evils and to return to our roots," he said.