For Shekar P, it’s a running battle with his friends: He wants them out jogging with him, but they would rather sleep over his plan. Literally.
“It’s so difficult to get them out of bed,” says the 23-year-old of his friends. “They have things to do during the day, their chores are all planned, and so exercise is not their priority.”
Shekar’s running mates range from boys to men; the youngest of the lot are around 18 years old, the rest are at various stages of adulthood till the age of 35 years.
Despite the disparate age groups, there is a strong thread that binds them: Like Shekar, they belong to the Soliga tribe from the Biligiri Rangana (BR) Hills in southern Karnataka.
But unlike Shekar, they go to neighbouring coffee estate as daily wagers as most are not very educated, having either dropped out of school, or opted not to pursue higher studies and get a better job.
However, the thread that rankles Shekar the most — the one that drives him to try and haul his friends to the hilly tracks of his neighbourhood every morning — is this: Most are alcoholics.
Plus, as he ruefully told South First, “Some have taken to local marijuana too.”
Related: Winds of change in Soliga tribal belt gently ruffle old ways
Breaking free of addictions
Shekar wants them to break free of their addictions.
And the only way he knows is through running and volleyball — sporting activities he fell in love with as a student at college in Kollegal in Chamarajnagar district, where his village Hosapodu is also located.
“I want them to be fit and healthy,” he says. “The only way they can do that is by running and be there on the volleyball court.”
But to do that, he has to first make his friends slip into their shorts and set off on the running track, something with which he struggles every morning.
“It is definitely not an easy task for me,” he concedes.
Tourists, Veerappan and hooch
Alcohol addiction is not limited or exclusive to the Soligas; it is fairly common among the tribal populations in various parts of India.
But what is interesting is that alcohol was not available in the open in the Soliga hamlets till the late 1990s, says a 2016 study by researchers from the Department of Studies in Anthropology, University of Mysore.
There were two major reasons for this, the study noted. First, hooch sellers from outside did not dare visit the tribal hamlets deep inside the forest fearing abduction by forest brigand Veerappan.
Second, the state government banned the sale of liquor within two kms of tribal hamlets in 2001, much to the delight of social workers.
It all changed with the killing of Veerappan in 2004; security personnel were withdrawn from the region, which opened up the BR Hills and tribal hamlets to hooch traders and tourists.
People engaged in the illegal liquor business began reaching villages in the deep woods, and selling to hooch outlets or even directly at the homes of many tribespeople.
Alongside, as tourist influx grew, partying and consumption of liquor in the forests became more and more frequent. All this “influenced” the Soligas, the study says.
Moreover, growing employment opportunities in the nearby coffee estates, and exposure to the urban lifestyles there also contributed to tribals getting lured to booze.
The study authors say they found instances of employers enticing tribal youths with alcohol to work on their land or at the business establishments. Sometimes, they paid the tribal youth with alcohol.
As a result today, alcohol sale and consumption is a “major problem” in nine tribal hamlets in the Biligiri Rangana Hills, including Hosapodu, where Shekar and his friends live.
The addiction has spread in recent years, “particularly among the youths”, the study notes.
Mahadevamma, a Soliga woman employee of the Institute of Public Health (IPH), a Bengaluru-based research institute working with the tribals, confirms the study findings.
“Alcohol and marijuana flooded our tribal hamlets” she told South First. “Many of our young men, especially the college dropouts, are now addicts.”
Widows & mental issues
The migration of tribal people to nearby towns and cities for college education and jobs have had socio-cultural implications, says the study.
Exposure to urban lifestyle bred in them a predilection for electronic gadgets, cell phones and alcohol. This has often proved too overwhelming for the simple Soliga youths to cope with.
As a result, dropouts among them became common, and grow even more post-Covid. “The entry of alcohol and growing addiction had affected many families,” the study notes.
When this reporter visited Kanneri colony, Hosa podu, Erakanagadde podu and few others on the fringes the forests, women and elderly men were working in a coffee plantation while a few youths were loitering around in an inebriated state.
Such scenes maybe commonplace today, but it disturbs Pandegowda, a Hosapodu resident like Shekar, and now a member of the mobile health unit of IPH.
“I knew many young boys have taken to drinking,” says Pandegowda. “What was shocking is the number of youngsters who have taken to it.”
What also took him unawares was the number of alcohol widows: young women whose husbands had died alcoholics.
“You visit any of the colonies you will find at least three to four girls who have lost their husbands, young men, just 25 to 30 years old,” he told South First.
This a trend that the Mysore University study also noted. “The nine tribal hamlets with 672 families have 132 widows of which 60 percent of the widows are less than 40 years,” it says.
“The only solace is that the majority of them are covered under widow or old age pension schemes.”
In addition to growing alcoholism, the study says addiction to locally sourced “ganja” or cannabis has pushed up mental health issues among the Soligas.
“There are more than one dozen youths with mental disorders moving around in darkness due to sleep disturbances and allied mental disorders,” the researchers wrote of their experience.
Six years after the study was published, nothing seems to have changed.
This reporter came across a 19-year-old woman from Hosapodu at VGKK Hospital, a healthcare centre for the tribals in the BR Hills; she requested anonymity as she was with her brother, who was suffering from mental issues.
“During his final year in college, he suddenly fell sick and started to acting strange. Our thammadi (the village healer) said he was possessed,” she says.
The brother, in his mid-20s was diagnosed with psychosis. He was behaving hysterically and was also addicted to alcohol. Doctors suspect it is due to alcohol or marijuana addiction. The doctors had met the family for the first time and had prescribed medicines, and sought follow-up checks to know the exact cause.
It is precisely because of at this that IPH decided to use sports as an intervention for mental health and alcoholism about two years ago.
Pandegowda of IPH says several organisations and tribal leaders have held awareness camps but nothing seems to have had any effect.
But now, Dr Prashanth NS, Assistant Director (Research) at IPH, and Dr Tanya Seshadri, its community health consultant, are also creating alcohol and tobacco cessation programmes through sports.
Two years ago, the IPH helped the Soligas set the Hosapodu Sports Club, where Shekar worked for three months after his college from Kollegal.
The club encourages Soliga boys and girls to play sports like volleyball, throwball and badminton, as well as other more sedate indoor games like carom and chess.
“With sports we are trying to ensure there’s positive mental health amongst the tribal young,” Dr Seshadri told South First.
Soliga youths across villages in the BRT Tiger Reserve have taken a liking for volleyball and running, says Shekar. So much so, they are even ready to compete in these disciplines.
Recently, Dr Prashanth took some young Soligas to Bengaluru for a five-km marathon and Krishna, a youth from Bangalee Podu, stood third.
And now, says Shekar, preparations are on full swing to hold a volleyball tournament soon, which he wants to be won by the team from Hosapodu — his village.
Interestingly, till this initiative kicked off, the Soliga youths did not have much exposure to formal sports. But when they left the villages for education outside, they were introduced to various sporting activities, including volleyball.
Shekar and his friends utilised this; they identified two youths familiar with volleyball from each village, and asked them to train others in their village to make a team.
Five teams were put together successfully, who practise regularly with balls provided by the IPH.
It’s an exercise that excites Shekar, who wants to pursue his MCom and later prepare for his UPSC exams as he dreams of being a police officer. He is now in his final year BCom. Meanwhile he is preparing for his UPSC exams.
“I want to be the first person from Hosapodu to become a police officer, I don’t see anyone else from my village becoming one,” he says.
“But for that, I need to remain fit. And I want to take my friends with me towards fitness through exercise, running and volleyball.”