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Breaking the Cycle

Saving Kerala’s children from alcoholism and abuse

text and photographs by Don Duncan

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The streets of the town of Marayoor, in the east of the Indian state of Kerala, are festooned with bright silver bunting to mark the feast of St. Sebastian. When a soft breeze rushes through them, the streets begin to glitter with the reflected light of myriad small, mirror-like flags.

But on the street below the sparkling bunting, things are not so bright. Day laborer John, 28, who dropped out of school at an early age, faces another day with no work and nothing to do.

“I quit school when I was 15 to take care of my family,” says John, as his two friends, Selvam and Anad, look on. They also quit school young and likewise struggle to find work.

John’s father, in the grip of alcoholism, would drink all his income, leaving John, his mother and his siblings next to destitute. So John, the eldest, took on the role of breadwinner. He left school to take work in the fields.

“I find things very hard now because of having left school early,” he says. “I could have studied longer and I would have a much better life now.”

Towns and villages all across Kerala feature displays of shimmering bunting for about ten days each January. But listless boys like John, Selvam and Anad, however, remain a feature across Kerala every day.

Alcoholism strongly afflicts Kerala, reputed to be the heaviest drinking of India’s 29 states.

A 2007 report by the Alcohol and Drug Information Center (ADIC)-India, estimated Kerala’s consumption at more than two gallons of pure alcohol per person per year. Other studies suggest rising consumption rates since then — part of a broader trend spanning several decades.

In the last ten years, Kerala’s government has made a number of attempts to combat alcoholism — including, in 2014, announcing phased prohibitionary measures, restricting alcohol sales in hotels and limiting liquor license renewals, resulting in the closure of hundreds of bars and liquor distributors. The effects have been inconclusive, and recent election results have likely signaled a shift away from such heavy-handed measures.

Primary knock-on effects of alcoholism — domestic violence, marital crisis and the premature deaths of men — are clearly detrimental to children. But secondary consequences, such as the squandering of family income and the perpetuation of negative behaviors, also disrupt the lives of Keralite youth and obstruct them from reaching their full potential.

With no easy answers in sight, it has fallen to the church and its institutions to seek solutions for a problem that seems only to be growing worse.

“Alcohol is at the root of at least 50 percent of all the cases we get before us,” says P.G. Gopalkrishnan Nair, chairman of the Child Welfare Committee (C.W.C.) office for Kerala’s Idukki district. The C.W.C. is a state-run office that intervenes and ensures the protection of children at risk. Gopalkrishnan Nair’s office has a caseload of about 600 per year, a figure on the rise, he says.

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