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What’s the price of the ‘right’ to alcohol?

beer cans
Could prohibition mean less violence against women in India? Greencolander, under a CC License

My very first blogs almost two years ago, talked about the growing alcohol problem in India.

While successive governments have patted themselves on their backs, each claiming credit for our galloping economy, India refuses to talk about the enormous social costs to our communities. Alcoholism and drug abuse are at their peak. In the past, many of our village communities used ganja recreationally, the way people in the West might have an evening beer. The ganja was taken in moderation, to ease aches and pains, to relax after a tiring day.

But in the last decade, governments have taken over the alcohol business by handing out dealerships. They do it because it rakes in the revenue. The price paid by society, particularly women and children, in terms of alcohol-related domestic violence, poverty caused by men drinking away entire incomes, or health issues have been ignored in spite of dire warnings by a few vigilant and concerned individuals.

Women’s groups have almost always voted for prohibition in India. An indication of how seriously the alcoholism problem affects them, is that in many cases, ordinarily timid, non-violent housewives have not merely protested against alcohol sales, but have burnt down liquor shops and distilling units. They did this out of desperation. Because often, it’s their lives at stake. A few years ago, local women destroyed an alcohol outlet. The shop owner got police protection and the women warned that they would be arrested if they came back to eradicate the menace to their children and families.

Recently, alcohol made headlines again, because a veteran Gandhian, Sasiperumal, has been on a 33 day long fast in Chennai, demanding total prohibition. He was arrested on 30 January, the anniversary of Gandhi’s death. Political parties and civil rights groups have joined him, pledging support.

A new anti-alcohol movement has begun our district, the Nilgiris. It’s about time. All over Tamil Nadu, we see men lying in gutters in a drunken stupor. It demeans them, destroys them. It drags their families into abject poverty. No good comes of it because this is not social drinking. It’s the same in most parts of India.

Many rape cases (though by no means all), especially the now common gang-rape cases, are caused by men who are drunk. The infamous and tragic Nirbhaya rape was committed by a gang of drunken men. Popular Bollywood and regional films link alcohol and sex in a particularly repugnant, machismo message. More sophisticated, whisky and vodka ads in glossy, expensive magazines send out much the same message. Men in expensive suits have a glass of scotch and a sultry, siren poses suggestively, draped over some part of their anatomy. Same message, different audience.

It’s generally the affluent Indian elites who raise the question of ‘our right to choose to drink.’ Along with pub owners, and liquor barons who are laughing all the way to the bank. There’s the notion that it’s cool and sophisticated to spend a social evening, clubbing or pubbing in exclusive bars or night clubs, especially on a weekend. The fact is, young, westernized Indian elites seem to base their lifestyles and especially their leisure on television series like Friends. They can’t be ‘cool’ unless they are talking about previously unknown pleasures like exclusive single malt whiskeys or expensive wines. They need to be cool and sophisticated. Show they have ‘arrived’.

This is a world far, far away from the life of 80 per cent of average India, where malnutrition persists together with starvation deaths and maternal mortality. I enjoy a glass of chilled white wine with my pasta. I was born into minority, elite India. But the question I ask myself is, if total prohibition means a few million Indian women will escape alcohol related violence, should I demand my right to my occasional glass of wine? 

I’ve dealt with a pregnant woman whose drunken husband kicked her in her stomach. I was pregnant too, when she lost her baby 28 years ago. So what price, this imperative, urgent right to drink?

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