Is God’s Own Country shedding its favorite tagline? A series of edit page articles published by the mass circulated “Malayala Manorama” in the last week of December2019, hint at that. The articles, ”Bhaviye Vizsungararurthu Lahari Bhootham” which highlight how the demon of addiction can wreck young lives and the gravity of drug addiction among young students. The stories based on real life stories of children in drug treatment centers fallen victim to deadly addiction reveal how the state has a major mental health challenge at hand.
The personal accounts highlighted in the first installment of the three part series are from children trapped by the demon of drugs who are children who sought help from the state excise department. They are undergoing treatment and counseling at the centers in the zonal offices of the department in Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi and Kozhikode. Started a year ago, these centers are helping over a thousand child addicts. This is an indication of the alarming widespread addiction among children in Kerala.
Some of the stories may be universal in nature; but they are personal narrations and characteristic of the state and its’ socio-economic and cultural milieu. The state of Kerala has a record of high alcohol consumption. The state has the highest per capita consumption of among states in India of over 8 liters per person per year which is way ahead of the national average of 5.7 liters. The state also has a record of experimenting with some restrictions on sale of certain types of alcohol with a routine change of governments after every five years. For example, beer bars were allowed only in three star and above hotels by the Congress led UDF government and in 2017 when the present CPM-led LDF government was elected to power, they changed that policy.
With the high inflow of Gulf money through migrant workers, and also from other countries, alcohol has become an integral part of the culture. During all festivals and New Year celebrations there are record sales of alcohol. In the just concluded Christmas and New Year celebrations, Malayalees drank liquor worth Rs. 514 cr. [The New Indian Express]. During 2019 Onam, the State festival of Kerala, liquor sale was a record Rs.487cr. [News18]. The only change probably since the 1970s has been a shift from the customary local drink of coconut toddy to Indian Made Foreign Liquor [IMFL]! So the state has a sort of alcohol culture and alcohol is classified as a depressant. With high levels of alcohol consumption there is a problem of dependence and addiction.
Interestingly, the sale of alcohol is monopolized by the Kerala State Beverages Corporation [BEVCO] which is a major revenue generating venture for the state government. A north Indian colleague after a visit to Kerala noticed long, if not serpentine, disciplined queues in every town through which he travelled during his road journeys in Kerala. He found the queues a strange phenomenon and was amused that they were liquor vends of BEVCO! He added that he had never seen such disciplined queues anywhere in India. Such seems to be the love for alcohol in the state that according to reports when the state was hit by devastating floods in August 2018, liquor sales seems to have peaked with a record revenue of Rs.14,508 cr. The month of August 2018 when floods hit BEVCO sales of this state government corporation touched yet another record of Rs, 1264.69 cr. according to reports. It is said that a few pegs are perfect companions at times of sorrow and joy!
Drugs also coexist with alcohol in Kerala. From wild growth of cannabis in the state, large scale organized illegal cultivation of cannabis in the forests of Idukki district had ensured easy availability of marijuana causing disastrous consequences to the state’s fragile eco-system. From cannabis, the current scourge of addiction has moved to many more new drugs. According the Malayala Manorama story the drugs available to the new generation in Kerala, besides cannabis include LSD, MDMA, heroin, various prescription drugs, even cocaine and volatile substances like whitener, polish etc. One of the articles was titled “From Bolivia to our School Courtyards”. The story quotes United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime [UNODC] and refers to the international drug trafficking syndicates like the Bolivian Cartel, which is reportedly active in Kerala. The sources of drugs for Kerala school children also comprise Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and South Africa. Nepal and Goa ‘connections’ also ensure regular inflow of illegal drugs into Kerala through motorcycle-borne young people as carriers.
There is an interesting interview with a local illegal drug agent by a lady reporter of Manorama. The reporter was given the contact of the agent by a member of the Anti Narcotic Special Action Force. This agent himself is trying to quit drugs after a close friend in north Kerala, an intravenous drug user, died of a drug overdose. While he is trying to quit he confessed that he cannot live without cannabis and said that he is badly trapped and will be finished any time. In the interview he revealed how cannabis is available all over near schools; and how for harder drugs for inmates of ladies’ hostels in Kozhikode, there are enough contacts and explained the modus operandi. He has permanent customers and a dozen local agents; clients mostly are children who are supplied drugs on credit also and if they fail to pay, their arms are cut with blades. Drugs like LSD are also delivered through courier in books in the pages of which stamp -sized drugs are hidden. He also explained the indigenous techniques used in delivering drugs to students and how children are enticed. He himself collects brown sugar from Ajmer or Bengaluru from ‘African’ ghettos.
In October last year my friend and close associate in addiction prevention and chairperson of Nada India Foundation Suneel Vatsyayan was in Kerala. As a member of the World Federation Against Drugs, he was attending the Asian Regional Forum Against Drugs, 2019 in Kochi. He was surprised that senior Kerala government functionaries were conspicuous by their absence at the conference inaugurated by Kerala Governor Arif Mohammad Khan and attended by senior representatives of the central government, National Institute of Social Defense[NISD] and UNODC. The absence of proper state government representation at the conference was noticed as the Conference discussed the National Action Plan for Drug Demand Reduction [NAPDDR] 2018-2023. As Kerala faces a major challenge of addiction, keeping away from seminal discussions on the aims to employ a multi-pronged strategy to address the issues of drug abuse envisaged in the National Action Plan may not be in the best interest of the state.
Vatsyayan says that in a global problem like drug addiction which seriously affects our country and the state of Kerala, needs to be combated by the nation as a whole, leaving aside petty political differences. Concerted efforts of state/ central governments and the civil society are called for as the future of our children is in peril. To him, who has seen the pain of addiction from the lives of thousands of addicts, addiction is not a choice but a response to an underlying psycho-social issue, trauma and chronic physical or emotional pain.
The problem faced by governments and policy planners is lack of proper understanding of addiction. I recently came across a video clip of a BBC Programme from their series “Ideas”. Despite my decades of experience of working and interacting with large number of drug addicts, writing extensively on the subject for all the audio-visual and print media, this programme cleared many of my doubts about addiction. So in conclusion I am quoting excerpts from the exposition on addiction by renowned addiction expert and author Gabor Mate in BBC’s “Ideas”. Gabor Mate’s “Mantra about addiction is not why the addiction but why the pain it causes and lists the “benefits of addiction”. They include relief from pain, escape from stress, getting a sense of belonging, a sense of connection, which a person may lack in his life. All these may be lacking in an addict who may be traumatized. Addiction is manifested in any behavior that a person finds temporary pleasure or relief in substances and may suffer negative consequences but may not give up or cannot give up despite the negative consequences. It could be tobacco, alcohol, any other substances or related to sex, eating, gambling, shopping or virtually any other human activity becoming addictive, depending on a person’s relationship to it. Gabor Mates also rejects the myths about addiction -that it is genetic, or that it is the choice of people.
One of the important point Mate makes is that for people who face more adversity in childhood, the risk of addiction is more. As we discuss the problem of addiction in Kerala, it is the duty of parents, educational institutions, civil society and the society at large to create the right environment to children that they do not become victims of addiction.