Last Sunday, 30 January, was the anniversary of Gandhi’s martyrdom. He campaigned ceaselessly and passionately against alcohol during his lifetime. Yet, sixty-odd years after his death, alcoholism is a very real problem in India. We have one of the largest alcohol industries in the world, with over 62 million alcohol users and well over 10 million alcoholics.
In 2006 and 2007 India produced about four million metric tonnes of liquor. With its new global giant image, India is viewed as a market with a potential for phenomenal profits.
My dad drank a beer every evening, so for me, alcohol was normal, just a part of life. But in the average Indian home, it was totally a taboo. Drinking was disgraceful and abhorrent until the 1990s. Young men who had drunk chewed betel leaf or ate onions to disguise the whiff before they headed home so that their parents would never know.
Then governments began to see the goldmine in the liquor business; it became one of the biggest income earners for individual states (most states get around 20 per cent of their revenue from alcohol, making it the second highest revenue source).
Village women protested. They burnt stills and attacked bootleggers. In 1988, adivasi women in the Gudalur Valley led a mob of women who drove illicit brewers out and set fire to their shops. Women in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu voted for politicians who promised prohibition. Yet after winning the elections, Chief Ministers reneged on prohibition promises because the filthy lucre liquor raked in proved irresistible.
Dr Ramadoss, the most progressive health minister India has ever had, pointed out what governments refuse to recognize. Profits from alcohol are smaller than losses due to alcohol-related health problems. Society pays for the industry’s profit. There is an enormous economic burden connected to alcohol use: alcohol-related crime, domestic violence, child abuse, accidents, loss of productivity and poverty. Dr Ramadoss urged the government to create an Indian Alcohol Policy.
Back home, we’ve been criticized for our anti-alcohol stance. I enjoy a glass of chilled white wine with pasta. But I realized long ago that social drinking is a very different exercise from the guzzling that the average Indian male indulges in. Some years ago, I watched Chennai labourers walk into a liquor booth, put their money down, knock back two shots of potent alcohol, then stagger out instantly drunk. I’ve seen Russians down vodka like that. But statistics, albeit much disputed, say that Caucasians are the only ones who can tolerate alcohol. Asians mostly can’t and indigenous people not at all. Alcoholism has destroyed indigenous people in North America, Australia and all over India.
A man buying his hooch. ‘Wine’ here is a euphemism for really strong alcohol, 200ml of which knocks out most people. Photo by Dr Mahesh Mathpati.
My first awakening to the problem was in 1984. We used to watch a loving young adivasi couple. She, Koiti, was pregnant. Her husband fetched water, firewood, swept the hut, cooked the meals and lovingly massaged her feet. But on Saturday evenings he received his weekly wage; he drank most of it, which turned him into an animal who beat his wife practically senseless. Once he kicked her in the stomach. She lost the baby. I heard later that she had lost three babies to his weekend alcoholic binges.
I was pregnant myself at the time. Livid with anger, sick with disgust, I urged her to leave him. She didn’t. She loved him, she said. He was the best husband in the world except for Saturday nights, when he drank.
My friend Maria reports that Jharkhand, an adivasi state, is a nightmare. Alcohol is destroying the men and ruining families. Children starve, drop out of school. You can bribe almost anyone with a bottle of booze.
Our National Health and Family Welfare report reveals that more than one in three women experience domestic violence. Women married to men who get drunk frequently are more than twice as likely to experience violence as women whose husbands don’t drink at all.
Welfare is being washed away by alcohol too. Take Tamil Nadu, a fairly progressive state. The government has subsidized rice to the ridiculous rate of two rupees (Rs.) for people below the poverty line. Ration rice would cost Rs.11 in the PDS (Public Distribution System), for other people and in ordinary grocery shops Rs.18 (£1 is around Rs.69 now). An average family uses at least one kilogram of rice per day. Unfortunately, the money saved by this subsidy is not buying nutritious food for kids. Mostly, it’s going into liquor shops. Every evening, men of all ages stagger through the streets drunk. This translates into abusive behaviour at home, which is why the women of India vote for prohibition.
After women, the most seriously affected are the young. There is heavy lobbying by the alcohol industry for reduction in the permissible age. Advertising increasingly targets the young. Many alcohol adverts feature partying young people, apparently having a good time. And you can’t have a good time unless you’re drinking. The average age of alcohol initiation has fallen by nearly nine years over the past two decades, from 28 to 19, and in Kerala, which has the highest per capita alcohol consumption in India, the average alcohol initiation age has dropped to 13.5 years!
We also have the world’s highest number of road accidents, and 40 per cent of them are due to alcohol. Even more shocking, 58.9 per cent of all injuries in India are alcohol-related.
Few newspapers carry these stories because the elite, our society pages-people, would decry prohibition as ridiculous, as an infringement of rights. Liquor barons party with media barons and they pose for pictures on the ludicrous, but mandatory socialites-who-want-to-be-seen sections of our newspapers. So the message goes out that it’s cool to be seen sipping your bacardi, beer, or brandy. It’s the kill-joys from an ancient Gandhian era who urge prohibition. They are the has-beens. India has moved on.
Interestingly, Gujarat, Gandhi’s state, has prohibition. Yes, you can buy illicit liquor anywhere in the state, but the mere fact of it being illegal means there is a fear of repercussions. There is less alcoholism in Gujarat than anywhere else. So prohibition does help.
Well, our beautiful people and our middle classes are a small percentage of the population. We’re working with the rural poor to whom the problem is out in the open.
We are launching a campaign against alcohol. I’ve been told we’re fighting a losing battle as it’s a world-wide problem, but we’re starting anyway. Wish us luck. Anyone who wants to send us films, posters or campaign materials, please do. You can be part of our campaign.