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One Day At a Time In Kerala

The church tackles alcohol and drug addiction

text by Paul Wachter
photographs by Cody Christopulos


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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.

Kerala has the highest consumption of alcohol per capita in the country (about 20 percent of Indians drink alcohol, and of that number 5 percent are alcoholics, reported The Hindustan Times last year). Each year, the state consumes 2.2 gallons of liquor per capita, about three times the national rate, according to India’s Outlook magazine.

“In Kerala, people tend to start drinking once they are 18 years old, which is the legal age for being able to purchase liquor,” said Father Titus Kattuparambil, a Syro-Malabar priest of the Eparchy of Irinjalakuda and assistant director of Navachaithanya.

“Among the bad cases, you’ll see people who earn about three dollars a day, and they’ll blow two dollars of that on alcohol.”

Both national and local governments have acknowledged the problem of alcoholism, and alcohol advertising is illegal. Kerala’s state government also funds several detoxification centers at public hospitals. But at the same time, Father Titus pointed out, the government in Kerala – as in other Indian states – draws revenue from liquor taxes and therefore has a fiscal disincentive to curb alcohol consumption.

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Tags: Kerala Health Care Alcoholism