Not long ago, Vincent Njarekaden was driving on the back roads of Irinjalakuda. The rural district lies in the central Indian state of Kerala about 40 miles northwest of the port city of Cochin. Mr. Njarekaden is the camp coordinator of Navachaithanya, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center established in 1991 by the Syro-Malabar Catholic Eparchy of Irinjalakuda.
As he passed a toddy shop, Kerala’s version of the neighborhood bar, Mr. Njarekaden recognized a former patient, Antu, walking in its direction. Mr. Njarekaden pulled over and summoned Antu to the jeep. “Where are you going?” Mr. Njarekaden asked. The former patient gestured toward the toddy shop.
Economists often cite Kerala as a model of human development in India. The state has achieved a literacy rate, standard of health and women’s empowerment to a greater degree than the country at large.
But there is a dark side to this progress: Unemployment in Kerala stands at about 35 percent, the worst rate of any state in India, according to India’s Labor Ministry. Kerala’s crime rate nearly doubles the national rate, according to the Ministry of Home Affairs. A conference on suicide prevention, held in the state capital of Trivandrum in 2004, reported that there are more reported suicides in Kerala than in any other state.
But alcoholism is perhaps the state’s worst social malady.
“When there is high unemployment, it is not uncommon for many people to turn to alcohol,” said Dr. M. Prasanna Kumar, a health consultant in Trivandrum. …
Nearly every village has a toddy shop. They dot the rural byways like rest stops. The shops, typically dark wooden shacks, have good, cheap curries. But they are better known for their toddy, a pungent liquor made from coconut trees. Inside the shops, men — and only men — can be found sipping tall bottles after a day in the fields. Conversation is muted. The men drink purposefully. They are there to get drunk.
Six months ago, Antu attended a month-long detoxification camp at Navachaithanya. He had been sober for five months, he said, but had started drinking a month ago.
Antu recounted his story matter-of-factly; he did not seem ashamed of being caught by the camp administrator. He had spent the whole day climbing coconut trees, collecting fruit. And now he wanted a drink. Antu said he would probably drink four liter-bottles of toddy — which all told will cost him about two dollars, or half of his day’s pay — and then go home and pass out. He claimed he would not be hung over the following day when he woke up to climb more coconut trees. Scolded but undeterred, Antu resumed his walk toward the toddy shop.
Each month, about 50 men arrive at the center for the detoxification and rehabilitation camp. Most men come of their own will, Father Titus said. Others are referred by their families, employers or local police.