Two recent suggestions by the Kerala High Court have become the major talking point in the State. One is that bars should open only at 5 in the afternoon. Lunch time drinkers and those who go to office after some stiff ones certainly won’t like this. But the main point of contention is an earlier observation of the HC to stop toddy tapping and replace that drink with beer.
Keralites celebrated Onam this year with liquor worth Rs.100 crores (1000 millions) from the State owned Beverages Corporation. This does not include bar sales, liquor consumption at parties, illicit and smuggled drinks and toddy. (According to senior journalist Vechuchira Madhu nearly 9 million litres of spirits are smuggled into Kerala annually from neighbouring states.) God’s Own Country reportedly spends more money on liquor than on rice.
The reactions of different sectors to HC’s toddy to beer suggestion show how ridiculous people can be. One leftist trade union leader claimed that the idea was to break up the toddy taper’s union which CPI (M) controls. The Muslim League welcomed the idea. The Ezhava community which has deep involvement in the toddy business and is a large vote bank, immediately protested that the League’s plan was to hurt them.
The State’s Congress Chief stated that toddy was a healthy drink and the Government would never ban that business. The Excise Minister reacted that the court cannot tell the people what to drink.
Why did the HC make such a view about toddy? Successive governments have failed to ensure the supply of pure and hygienic toddy. What is being sold in most of the 5000 toddy shops in the State is not the pure stuff. It is often heard that many toddy shops provide a concoction made with ammonia, ash gourd and some other ingredients including a bit of real toddy for the flavor. There may be other recipes as well. Sometimes arrack which is prohibited in the State is added for greater kick.
Kerala sells 2.9 lakh litres more of toddy per day than what it can produce! About 3.15 lakh coconut trees are tapped in the State. The maximum quantity of toddy that is obtainable from a tree is 1.5 liters a day. That works out to about 4.73 lakh liters. The daily sale is said to be 7.64 lakh liters. Where does the balance come from? There is no import of this item from other States.
Now let us come to Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL), the labelled stuff. By opening the bars only at 5 p.m., some reduction in alcohol consumption can be expected. But the bars account for only 21% of the daily sales. It seems impractical to open the Beverages Corporation outlets also only at 5 p.m. The rush would be considerable.
What seems important to me is to analyze where the bottles from the shops - mind you, 79% of the total quantity – are taken. Drinking at public places (like the road side), hotel/club rooms and houses of ill-repute cannot be much. One report says that there are over 600 unlicensed bars in the State. They could account for a considerable quantity. Nevertheless it would appear that most of the liquor is drunk at home, either with friends or alone.
Some friends gathering at the same house everyday to drink is unlikely. Mostly it would be the man drinking alone. In some cases the wife might also join. According to statistics, 5% of Indian women drink. In Kerala it could be more. But in many cases the women do oppose the husbands drinking and often not too tactfully.
This is perhaps a deficiency of the several awareness programmes (which have all failed) aimed at the reduction of alcohol consumption. Instead of picketing toddy shops or fighting with the husband about his drinking, why not make it pleasant for the man if he wants to drink at home? It could possibly reduce the quantity he consumes.
Domestic violence is often projected as one of the nasty sides of drinking. But the situation is not too bad. We have fewer problems in this area than some of the Western countries. A 1997 survey in Switzerland showed 20% of their women faced domestic violence. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) confirms that cruelty by husbands has increased in Kerala from 9.8 in 2004 to 11.8 in 2007 while the National average remains at 5.3. Surprisingly around 60% of Kerala women seem to believe that their husbands have the right to beat them.
Alcohol and Drug Information Centre claims that 80% of the increasing cases of divorces in Kerala State are linked to alcohol consumption. But the numbers are not high and mostly the problem is related to the money spent on bottles and temporary sexual inadequacy caused by heavy consumption. No woman would like to sell her gold to finance drinking or go through the nightmare of sleeping with the drunken husband.
The most shocking situation in Kerala is that even though the legally stipulated minimum age for drinking is 21, school children have openly started hitting the bottle. This week TV channels were showing pictures of boys in school uniforms in the queues at Beverages Corporation outlets. No one there seemed to bother.
Well, that is how it goes. Dr. Thomas Isaac, the Finance Minister in the previous government, once said: “Am I happy that liquor consumption is going up? No never. But it's an assured source of revenue for the government. And even if I don't collect it, there will still be consumption of liquor". Imposing prohibition or increasing the price of alcohol will only help moonshiners and the corrupt persons.
Perhaps the solution lies with the women. A smart, pleasant wife would be able to induce her husband to be at home in the evenings, keep him happy and attempt to make him consume less liquor. Awareness programmes on these lines should be organized for the ladies. That might help.