Kerala hurtling to a drinking disaster

published on January 18, 2010

Kerala’s Patiala Peg
Daily Pioneer

Kerala drinks more alcohol than it consumes rice, so so says a comparative study of annual liquor sales and food bill of the State. The statistic is alarming if you see how drinking problems among Keralites have started coming from the under 18 age group too. VR Jayaraj tells you how lost the State Government is in the glitter of profit even as Kerala is hurtling to a drinking disaster

Bread-earner of a typical Kerala working class family in Wadakanchery of Thrissur district, Kunhikkuttan, 38 years of age and father of three girls aged between 11 and six, he earns Rs 200 a day from his work as a helper in the construction sector. As a rule, he spends a minimum of Rs 120 from this on the five “larges” of cheap rum at the filthy counter of New Castle Bar in the small town. Radhamani, Kunhikkuttan’s wife, keeps things going at home by washing clothes, cleaning utensils and scrubbing floors in the neighbourhood.

Settled now in Kochi, Mathew Cheriyan (49), rich and educated, makes good money from his “easy business”, which he would never reveal. He starts drinking since morning and by noon he is sloshed. By the time he leaves his favourite bar on Kochi’s MG Road after having at least a full litre of his favourite Caesar brandy, it is usually well past midnight. Mathew’s educated wife Gladys says she stopped waiting for him long back. Fortunately or unfortunately for her, she would never be able to have children.

Seventeen-year-old Sarath, son of autorikshaw driver Unnikrishnan of Mannar, Alappuzha, dropped out of school when he was in Class IX and is now a hired hoodlum, earning “quotation” money by beating up innocents. The law forbids under-18 persons from having liquor, but Sarath spends all his money on booze, Pan Parag, Bombay or Hans gutka and movies. When there is no money, he threatens his own working mother and college-going sister. “I can’t do anything. I am helpless and fed up,” says Unnikrishnan.

Drinkers and drunkards

Kunhikkuttan, Mathew and Sarath are representatives of the republic of world boozers but the difference of tipplers in Kerala is that they are not exceptions as is the case in other societies. It is not normal when a “small” section of the society spends more money on liquor than the entire State spends on food, but that is exactly what is happening in Kerala. Proof of this is revealed in the sales returns recorded every passing fiscal and festivals at State-run monopoly liquor distributor, the Kerala State Beverages Corporation (BevCo).

“Kerala is known outside as God’s Own Country. Indeed it is, but the question is which God? The God here is Bacchus, the God of alcohol,” says Alice Johnson, a Kochi-based anti-liquor crusader. “Kerala is a land with deep Marxist roots. It was Karl Marx who said religion is the opiate of people. Now, with thinker Thomas Szaz, we should say opiates – in this case liquor – are the religion of Keralites,” Alice adds.

State’s goldmine

In 2008, the Onam festival liquor sales at the 337 retail outlets of BevCo had stood at Rs 150 crore. With the money spent on booze at the 500-odd bars, more-than 4,000 toddy shops and the illegal spirit and country brews, the money spent by boozers could reach anywhere around Rs 350 crore. At the same time, the spend for the season on rice, the staple food of Malayalees, by the entire State in the corresponding season was a mere Rs 140 crore!

That is something the Governments should take into account, psychologists say. “It is a very shocking situation. Booze sales and consumption are witnessing a minimum of 30 per cent upward leap with every successive festival and fiscal. Malayalees now think that festival celebrations are impossible without booze. The reasons for such a situation are many, but what we need is immediate action. The Government is not doing anything as it is receiving hefty amounts in taxes and profits from BevCo business,” Alice points out.

Successive Governments insist that the mission is to bring a total end to alcoholism in the State gradually. Obviously, this has never been the objective. The simple fact is that the State cannot lose the money coming in from liquor sales, which constitutes a good percentage of the total revenue income of the State. For example, the average annual revenue income of Kerala Government, according to State budgets, is Rs 25,000 crore. The Government’s income from liquor sales in fiscal 2008-09 was Rs 3,675 crore. “Will any politician say no to this?” Alice asks.

Who are the drunkards of Kerala? Fifty-one per cent of the population could be counted out as they are women. Kerala women do not drink, with some exceptions. The old, kids and teetotalers among men constitute almost 30 per cent of the Kerala population. This reveals the appalling fact that a mere 20 per cent of the population is spending more money on booze than the entire State spends on rice and other essential commodities.

A survey conducted in 2008 in Kulathoor Gram Panchayat in Kozhikode district by school children had revealed that the amount spent by the people in the panchayat on liquor and other intoxicants per year was Rs 6.64 crore. Shockingly, this was more than three times the annual Plan allocation for the entire panchayat! “It’s a messy world and it stinks,” says Roy George, a Malayalee working in Germany. “I can’t understand what a Malayalee has got on his mind,” he adds.

Dizzying figures

A perusal of alcoholism statistics in Kerala is enough to send a chill down the spine of the sane. In two decades, the money spent on liquor in Kerala grew by a 1,000 per cent. In the past five years, the drinkers’ budget doubled. In the past half-decade, the number of adolescents taking to alcohol-affinity doubled. In 1987-88, the turnover of IMFL sales was a mere Rs 81.42 crore. But after 20 years, this has jumped to Rs 4,633 crore in 2008-2009. The BevCo target for the current fiscal is Rs 5,300 crore and BevCo authorities, including managing director N Shakar Reddy, are confident that it is a realistic target. “Much of it has already been achieved,” says a BevCo official.

This, the turnover at BevCo outlets, constitutes only less than half of the total money spent on liquor in the State. And in the process, Kerala rose to the top of the list in the country in per-capita liquor consumption in November, 2008, pushing Punjab down to second place. As per statistics, the per capta liquor consumption in Kerala is 8.3 litres while it is 7.9 litres in Punjab.

There was not much increase till 1996-1997 in the sales of IMFL (India-manufactured foreign liquor). But a two-fold increase was registered in IMFL sales ever since arrack, the colourless common man’s drink made by diluting spirit, was banned in the State in 1996. The turnover from IMFL sales was Rs 477.60 crore in 1995, before the 1996 ban on arrack, which had caused several tragedies, including the death of 77 persons on a “dry day” amid Onam celebrations at Vypeen, Kochi, in 1982. However, sales leapt to Rs 762.93 crore in the following year and since then a steady growth had been noticed. Rum, the favourite drink ever of the common man in the State, constituted 62 per cent of the total sales followed by brandy with 32 per cent.

A class apart

Alcohol, for the Malayalees, is no more a relaxation agent, appetizer, depression-suppressor or socialising factor. Enter any of the cheapest and cheaper bars at 7.30 pm on a working day or holiday. One sees dozens of people – and hundreds on special days – jostling against each other to reach their hands to the counter to buy liquor. There is no time to specify the brand, and the bar manager does not guarantee stock of the liquor of your choice. Payment has to be made first, and then take your “larges”, “double larges,” “60s”, “90s” or “120s” and down them all in no time. It is like an entire crowd anxiously indulging in a forced occult ritual to fly into oblivion, to escape the clutches of reality of which they have never bothered to think.

Almost all such drinking facilities are filthy. The customers, the backbone of the business, are not respected or even minded and the employees (there are no stewards or waiters at such facilities) are seen howling at the top of their lungs to the customers when some disputes arise. Bouncers are part of the game, and customers being thrown out a common sight. Reality is that almost all class hotels – up to three-star affairs – invariably have such facilities for the “wretched” of the Earth who seek redemption through booze.

“It is as though the people can’t wait to get their brains paralysed. You can see them downing glass after glass without a break, and dragging themselves away unsteadily after that ritual. It is not a one-day affair for these people. It is repeated throughout the year, their lives. As far as I can see, the Malayalees are a frightened lot. They have an enemy somewhere and they don’t want to face him. They just want to run away. They want to forget the world as fast as they can, fly into total forgetfulness in minimum time. It is worth a billion-dollar study,” says Sethu Nath, a Kochi-based sociologist.

For the same reason, people like Adinad Sasi, president, All-Kerala Madyapana Kshema Samithi (committee for the welfare of boozers), says that the Government should use a part of the money it gets as tax from drinkers for creating facilities for them. According to Sasi, it is the duty of the Government to ensure such facilities. He also says that there should be free medical assistance for alcoholics. Sasi and his colleagues do not promote alcoholism or justify it. What they point out is that some people have become alcoholics and the society has to live with that reality till it puts an end to the tendency.

Spin effect

Adinad Sasi complains that the Government is not doing anything to stop adolescents from taking to alcohol. He says the more and more children, between 13 and 18 years of age, have become regular drinkers. Sociologists agree with Sasi. There should be carefully crafted awareness programmes to keep the children away from alcohol and other intoxicants, they say. A rough estimate is that seven per cent of regular boozers in Kerala is children below 18.

“The world of liquor is proving the ante-room to the evil fortress of the mafia in Kerala. Records with the State police show that a good percentage of the regular criminals are children aged between 15 and 18,” says a Circle Inspector of Kerala Police, one of the force’s specialists in the filed of booze-related crimes, who does not want to see his name in print.

He says, parents and the society have a huge role in pushing these innocent children into alcoholism and crime. “I have analysed many such cases and have helped several children to recover from both these vices. In most cases, parents are to blame,” he adds.

According to this CI, and police records, 69 per cent of all crimes committed in Kerala annually have some link to alcohol. Forty per cent of all road accidents in the State are alcohol-related. Another shocking aspect of liquor is that 19 per cent of patients seeking medical assistance at hospitals have illnesses or diseases pertaining to alcoholism. But most tragic of among all this is the hardship and persecution the women face, like Kunhikkuttan’s wife Radhamani.

“I am ready to work for him and my kids till my back breaks. But what I get in return is torture, grief and the sight of my kids in perpetual anxiety and fear. He will come home late, may or may not eat and begins beating me up for no reason. That triggers fear in my children. Earlier, he used to show some signs of remorse in the morning, but now he is beyond that. My parents did not bring me up for this. At 29, I know this is not my story alone. Somebody should do something to save women like me,” Radhamani says with tears rolling down her sunken cheeks.

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