Would you believe me if I told you that Kerala’s drinking problem did not exist a few decades ago? Kerala now has the highest per capita alcohol consumption than any state in India. So, how did we reach here? This article will delve into the social history of Kerala’s drinking problem.
Note that most of the information I have received is based on Dilip M. Menon’s journal article “From Pleasure to Taboo: Drinking and Society in Kerala”. You can get access to his research paper here.
In the 19th century, research showed that in the Northern parts of Kerala, almost everyone participated in cultivation without the presence of caste hierarchy. People who owned land would accompany the labourers on the field. It sort of created a community of cultivators and landowners, working towards a common goal. After a day of hard work and sweat, they would gather together to drink and rejoice. “An ethic of work and an ethic of drink went hand in hand”, said Dilip.
Moreover, there was a class of landowning people who were known to hunt and drink as a symbol of distinguishing novelty in society. They would maintain cordial relations with toddy tappers in order to keep up with their status. It is said that they would offer oil, grain, and cloth in exchange for toddy. Both the upper caste and lower caste people had also used toddy during rituals and worship to god. It’s still practised in many parts of Kerala, where toddy and sacrificial meat are offered to the gods in return for their blessings. So, drinking was either restricted to post-work scenarios or during religion gatherings, where the idea of community drinking played a prime role in a Malayali’s life.
The Geographical Change
From 1920, there was a soaring demand for pepper and coconut from the Malabar region, and people started to grow coconut trees within their properties. So, Thiyyas, who were originally known for their toddy tapping work, started to become their own cultivators by venturing into coconut cultivation. They began to reap profits, and live a better life owing to their access to education, new line employments, and properties. But the stigma of their caste still existed. The elite, original cultivators soon distanced themselves from community work. This change in their profiles lead to the increase in production of coconut and excess supply of toddy at the same time. So, what did people do with the excess toddy? They began to distil it locally as arrack.
The shift from toddy to arrack is prime to understand Kerala’s drinking problem we see today. You see, toddy isn’t as potent and addictive as arrack, as Dilip mentions. So, when arrack production became huge, more profits started pouring in. When it became a fad in Kerala, it gave way for drinking beyond post-work and the occasional religious celebrations. It led to the rise of arrack consumption and “spendthrift nature of the lower class”. The Government could not keep on increasing land revenue, and therefore, started to look at institutionalising arrack and toddy trade.
Toddy and arrack shops were offered for sale at an auction by the Government and were bought by people belonging to the Thiyya, Nair, and Mappila caste. They had access to contractors who either had their own set of trees to tap or from landlords. Illegal tapping rose as people wanted to make more money on the side. Between 1917 and 1927, the Government increased taxes and vend fees on toddy and spirits, making it very costly to produce in the first place. People from the upper caste were part of the excise department, which resulted in conflicts between the Thiyyas and Nairs who were once in alliance with each other. What was once a community-driven relationship soon became a resentment – all over toddy. It was during this period, the illegal distillation of liquor grew at an all-time high.
The taxation policy, however, served the needs of drinkers, who would rush to Government-run arrack shops to get access to arrack which was cheap. Drinking became very individualistic and addictive. Earlier, it was confined to work and religion, but now, since the relationship between the upper caste and lower caste were broken off, nobody had to keep up with the social obligation.
Enter Narayana Guru, whose social reform movement brought in a new understanding of alcohol. He proposed the idea that people from the Thiyya caste should let go of their ‘toddy tapping’ profession in order to rise in status. Over the years, the number of toddy tappers reduced. The Congress Party and the nationalist movement also promoted a very anti-alcohol fervour. It brought down the Government revenue from alcohol drastically. But, the status of alcohol consumption increased owing to the bad working conditions of the labour force. The workers only had arrack shops and cinema theatres as a relief from the stress of work. So, what did the Government do to counter this?
On October 1st, 1947, the Madras Legislative Assembly led by the Congress introduced a prohibition in Northern Kerala. It was later lifted in 1967 when the United Front Government came into power with E.M.S.Namboodirippad saying that ‘in principle, drinking cannot be considered a mistake”. In 1978, the prohibition movement became the talk of the town when the State level Prohibition Council was formed. After years of fighting and creating noise about Kerala’s alcohol problem, especially our addiction to arrack, in 1996, the State Government banned the sale and production of arrack in Kerala.
Varun Panicker calls Kerala’s drinking problem state-sponsored alcoholism because of the historical traditions of drinking in Kerala. Looking back, we can now see how we Malayalis have attained the status of “people who can drink like a fish”.