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Doomed Drinking Denizens of Kerala

Posted: Monday, 25 August 2014 16:36

Blog: Doomed Drinking Denizens of Kerala

Aug 25: The recent decision of the government of Kerala, the highest per capita liquor guzzling State of India, suddenly puts the drinking population in a fix with the legal sales being phased out in 10 years but sparing the 5-star hotels. They will soon have to figure out how they can quit the health and wealth damaging habit or find underground alternatives to procure their tipple

‘I would walk a mile for a Camel’ was a popular slogan coined by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company in the USA for their then top selling Cigarette brand as few smokers knew about the dangers of smoking but who gradually kicked the habit because of strong campaigns detailing harm they caused to health and the strict government policies that fell short of banning their sales. It would be interesting to see how much the Keralites would be willing to travel to the nearby States for their addiction. They might even settle grudgingly to buy from the bootleggers expected to be drawn to the lucrative business of unofficially distributing the alcoholic products. Some of them may even quit drinking and a newer generation of potential drinkers may even be motivated to stay away from the harmful habit. Unfortunately, many might end up dead, drinking illegal and poisonous hooch, an industry that thrives invariably in any State with prohibition.

I am strongly against prohibition in Kerala. This is not an opinion based on tossing a coin. But it’s based on a life-time of experience and observation within India and other countries, especially the US. Like anywhere else (even though Gujarat is chugging along with it only due to sentimental reasons), it is bound to fail. But till such time as the government admits its folly, the drinking (especially the drunkard) denizens of Kerala are doomed unless they move to live with their relatives in the Middle-East or join the new and potentially prosperous business of bootlegging or become runners for the affluent Keralites and fetch liquor from the neighbouring state or join one of the organized gangs that are most likely already on their drawing boards, waiting to seize the new business opportunity.

First-off, I must assure the prohibitionists that I am a fairly staunch anti-alcohol person although I did coin the phrase ‘Wine is not alcohol-it has some’. I am as passionately against alcohol as V.M Sudheeran, President of the State Congress Committee- Congress is the major political party of the ruling coalition of the United Democratic Front (UDF). I have been a teetolar during my college days in I.I.T. Delhi where I often used to be offered monetary bait just for trying a sip of whisky by some friends. Over seven years in Germany and the USA could not entice me to change my drinks profile. How I fell in love with wine a few years after my return to India is a story for another Blog. But I drink wine as a low-alcohol-based lifestyle beverage which I believe is good for heart and health-provided it's taken in moderation.

One or two glasses of wine or any alcohol is good for heart and health, according to several studies during the last 3 decades. But the negative effects of alcohol increase exponentially with every glass beyond. The addiction can cause several diseases of the liver, kidney, cancer, heart and many other parts of the body, ultimately killing the grey cells of the brain and resulting in cutting short life. Financial strain on the families is sad and tragic-especially for the low and lower-middle classes.

Alcoholism is a curse and though there is no specific definition about alcoholics, a majority of the Kerala male adults could be described as alcoholics.  According to Alcoholic Anonymous (AA) it may be described as a physical compulsion, together with a mental obsession. Apart from having an enormous craving for alcohol, an alcoholic often yields to that craving at the worst possible times. The alcoholic knows neither when nor how to stop drinking. Alcoholics are obsessed with alcohol and cannot control how much they consume, even if it is causing serious problems at home, work, and to their financial health.

Alcoholism is a form of illness for which Prohibition is not the cure.

One reads horrifying stories of how Keralites consider consumption of liquor as a way of life and some of them started drinking alcohol at the age of 4. Waiting in long lines for the booze shops to open at 9 in the morning, is another sign of the increasing state of alcoholism that is genuinely a cause of concern for the families and the State.

But Prohibition will not solve the problem.

We have examples of failed Prohibition from the US to Haryana. The pro-Prohibitionists might still throw statistics at you that the amount of drinkers came down to less than half during the Prohibition of 1920-33. But there was so much increase in organized crime and growth of speakeasies (illegal establishments selling alcohol) that the Act was finally repealed.

Closer to home, Haryana suffered a major blow to the Prohibition when the ill-advised Policy of the Bansi Lal government introduced on July 1996 was abandoned on All Fools Day, April 1 in 1998 as if to implicitly admit the blunder that cost him the elections and resulted in his ouster but not before heavily denting the State system-a mind boggling 100,000 prosecution cases with about 60% being non-bailable offences further choked the legal system and not before the criminally minded politicians filled their coffers while the State lost around Rs. 12000 crores (Kerala stands to lose Rs. 8,500 Crores of Revenues every year and Modi government is hardly expected to subsidise it when it knows the next State election will now give it a better chance at the buntings.)

Most short sighted activists concede that the social costs would be there but the benefits of the Prohibition far outweigh the costs. It will take perhaps less time in Kerala to realize its folly than Haryana as these costs almost always turn out to be much higher than the benefits.

Chief Minister Chandy needs to be congratulated for leaving 111 wine and beer bars out of the prohibition gambit and one hopes that at least these will be spared to make wine and beer, softer and low-alcoholic beverages available to the common man. It still remains a mystery why only 5-star hotels have been allowed to sell liquor and thus will enjoy a virtual  monopoly.

What the government needs to focus on is the education of the consumers about the ill-effects of alcohol abuse. There is hardly any significant amount spent on consumer education. The government would counter by suggesting that the Kerala Alcohol Beverage Corporation already runs such programmes. Firstly, it is laughable to expect that an organisation that sells liquor (and presumably has to show sales growth every year) would be interested or focus on any anti-alcohol drive).

The budgets for promoting anti-alcohol drive need to be much larger and controlled through a separate department independent of the excise/ sales department. I would say as high as 10% of the funds collected as taxes on alcohol must be spent on the education of people, disseminating  information about the ill-effects of alcohol (Kerala requires this education at the school level because of the younger age at initiation). They could set up more Alcohol Anonymous types of organizations or subsidize the existing ones to expand their area of reach. There should be incentives introduced in the Life Insurance policies for people who don’t drink (at the first instance wine/beer/toddy might be excepted unless a stage comes that people start turning alcohol binge drinking to even beer or wine.) There are several out-of-the-box solutions that the new proposed department could consider.

There could be stricter controls over the opening and closing timings of retail stores. Sunday closing as proposed is a good start. The opening hours could be gradually made later than the current timings. Bar closing times could be advanced gradually. There would be opposition from the liquor and bar lobbies. But the government has to be firm and not ‘tempted’. With the fear of prohibition on their heads, the lobbyists may like to lie low for a while.

As a starter, the CM could send a delegation headed by Mr Sudheeran to the USA to study the ill effects of prohibition in that country, resultant actions and why prohibition was finally lifted. At any rate, Prohibition is not the answer-education is; unless the objectives are selfish and politically motivated.

All else may fail, but Prohibition is certainly going to fail and fall-unfortunately after causing thousands of crores of rupees of loss to the State.

Subhash Arora

A similar Article in this issue detailing the imminent prohibition may be viewed on clicking at: Kerala Faces Partial Prohibition in Phases

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Tags: Kerala



Rishi Vohra, CSW Says:

Good points! Your suggestion - "10% of the funds collected as taxes on alcohol must be spent on the education of people..." - is fantastic.

Posted @ September 15, 2014 11:05


R Parthiban Says:

Dear Subash, You are absolutely correct. All these prohibition is a tamasha aiming at Vote Bank Politics. It would increase underworld activity and no income to exchequer.

Posted @ August 29, 2014 18:24


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