PADICHIRA, WAYANAD (KERALA): "I don't want to glorify my profession, but we too are human beings. Understand our problems as well," said M. Uttaman, mild reproof in his voice. And what is his profession? "I own a toddy shop."

Shouldn't you be doing much better these days, journalist K.A. Shaji gently asks. After all, in this kind of depression, people must be drinking a lot more. They are, says a morose Uttaman, but not toddy. "This arrack from across the border is killing us."

"The fall in the purchasing power of the poor in Wayanad hit us very badly," says the toddy shop owner. "We pay a heavy fee to the Government for our licenses. In the middle of this agrarian crisis, where our clients are earning nothing, this has become a burden. Then when cheap and strong arrack is smuggled in from Karnataka, it just destroys the economics of our trade."

Threat from across the border

Toddy is legal in Kerala, while arrack is banned. Also, while a litre of toddy costs Rs. 30, a sachet of arrack goes for Rs. 11. As the farm crisis sees thousands of migrants crossing over into Karnataka, arrack shops right on the border are booming. Travellers from Wayanad can find one within a minute's walk of most bus stops they get down at in Karnataka. One shop, just across the river Kabini in Byrekuppa, accounts for a good bit of the boat traffic to that town.

Uttaman's reading of the damage arrack is doing to his trade is quite accurate. Take Kutta in Kodagu, Karnataka. There are four arrack joints around this tiny town. In the first ten minutes we spend in one of them, a dozen customers come in, buy several sachets and move on. Some consume a couple of the sachets on the spot and pack the rest that they buy. All this brisk activity in the morning - the leanest period for such shops.

Doomed trade

On an average, these four small shops together sell around 5,000 sachets of arrack daily. (A lot more on market days.) This means they are making around Rs. 55,000 each day. Or a stunning combined annual turnover of close to Rs. 2 crore in a single town of less than 6,500 people. Which implies that the trade all along the border runs to tens of crores of rupees. Uttaman's toddy trade does appear doomed.

Kutta's own buyers simply do not support such volumes. So who does? Bus traffic from Wayanad to Kutta has gone up 400 per cent in recent times. Wayanad's rich cash-crop economy has collapsed. And over 1,000 people from there touch this point daily, seeking work on this, the Karnataka side of the border. The main revenue for the arrack shops comes from these and other travellers.

A source of income

For some, it's a source of income in these desperate times. "It all happened when agriculture crashed in Wayanad," says Uttaman. "Labourers cannot get a day's work here. So now, some go to Karnataka and buy 15 packets of arrack and return to sell them in Wayanad. They cost Rs. 11 but sell here for over Rs. 25 and even more. This undercuts us badly."

"A typical arrival," says C.C. Subbaiah Surat in Kutta, "might buy six sachets." He is a local businessman and BJP activist. "Two packets he consumes on the spot. The rest he takes back and sells at home. There he will get at least Rs. 25 a packet or more." An investment of Rs. 66 can earn its owner Rs. 100. Minus the bus fare and the cost of the two packets consumed, it still leaves over a few rupees. In short, it's almost a self-financing scheme. In the midst of Wayanad's economic chaos, those at the bottom scrape around for ways out. This seems to be one of them - arrack as a distress trade.

Illicit brewing

Adding to the complexity is the illicit brewing of arrack in Wayanad's own villages. A number of marginal farmers and landless workers, both settlers and adivasis, are into this now. They see no other way of tiding over the ongoing crisis. At least this brings in some income, however meagre, at a time when all other avenues have failed. There is also some brewing of bootleg in remote parts of the forest, beyond police and excise department reach.

For Uttaman, though, it all adds up to bankruptcy. "I pay the Government a yearly license fee of Rs.48,000," he says. "Then there is the welfare fund payment for my eight employees, which is almost a lakh of rupees. We tap nearly 120 litres of toddy a day. Remember it's a perishable good. If you can't sell it in 48 hours, you throw it away." Since toddy is a major item in Wayanad and closely linked to the employment of many, the issue gets more tricky.

"Five years ago, I sold 250 bottles a day. Now that's down to just 10 or 15 daily. Toddy fetches Rs. 30 a litre. But the tapper gets his daily wage of Rs. 22 regardless of how it goes. To add to it all, the bootleg mafia around here also undercuts us further. This business is cracking." So are a host of others. Many small shops and provision stores around here have folded. Some now work only 6:30 am to 9 am and then again from 5 pm to 7 pm.

"It's across the board," says Uttaman grimly. He locates his problem clearly within the agrarian crisis that has crushed Wayanad's economy. "The cinemas have closed, so have the teashops. Pepper, coffee, cardamom - everything is doing badly. People have no money," he says. What are the options? "It seems to me the pressure is so great that some toddy shops, too, will start buying and selling arrack on the sly. How do you expect people to survive?"