New Internationalist

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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  1. #1 Capt Dhun Daruwala 08 Mar 13

    Dear Mari,
    I am not on any social sites. So I have to comment directly.
    Yes alcohol abuse is prevalent.
    Total prohibition has failed in the past every where.Extremely difficult to police effectively.
    All it does is makes the boot leggers rich.
    In India spurious liquor in times of prohibition or otherwise has killed off thousands.
    I wish there was a solution.
    Best regards.
    Dhun D

  2. #2 Aloke Surin 09 Mar 13

    Like the tobacco and cigarette industries, alcohol too generates massive revenues to the producers,distributors,retailers and of course the government.This is a fact all over the world. And it suits these parties to promote and sustain the image of drinking being a ’cool’ indulgence. The social costs of alcohol related illness,accidents and death are probably as high as those related to drug abuse. Also, the assumption that ’social’ drinking is a good thing needs to be re-evaluated in this age where megabucks determine our mores and lifestyles. Unfortunately,Prohibition, whenever and wherever it has been applied, does not seem to resolve the issue. Having said that, Prohibition throughout the country might mitigate the misery that addiction to alcohol wrecks on the very poor.

    On a more universal scale, a global movement to ban and discourage the production, sale and promotion of liquor (similar to the anti-smoking campaigns which finally succeeded in banning smoking on flights and in buildings, and ostracizing the smoking brotherhood by rendering the habit ’ultra uncool’)could begin a slow movement to combat the toll that alcohol takes all over the world.

  3. #3 jayanthi 09 Mar 13

    Well written and thought provoking.



  4. #4 Beulah 09 Mar 13

    Very well written , but unfortunately there are no short cuts to this malaise. Prohibition will not be the effective tool , but as you can see in some places including India cigaret smoking is not so visible as it was earlier.....
    I am in Malaysia just now and every male has a cigaret hanging out of his mouth! The guy who was billing us for fruits we bought in his store had it in his lips while he billed and packed the fruit for us, I almost chocked! It is as rampant as mobile phones in our country which is almost like an ear epidemic in India!

  5. #5 Cavery 11 Mar 13

    Mari, thanks for bringing this up again. I think we need toddy and the mahua drinks back in our lives. Wine and beer should also be OK. They help relax tired muscles and perhaps can be had in moderation. Also the toddy and mahua drinks may helped boost the local economy.
    Most people cannot afford IMFL (Indian Made Foreign Liquor) that they now have to buy. And there is a lot of illegal activity associated with it.
    Does anyone care?

  6. #6 Tony Horitz 11 Mar 13

    This resonates very interestingly with a Drama Workshop I ran at the school for Adivasi children and young people in Gudalur last November. I was working with the teacher trainees and had begun by telling them a traditional story from Dorset, the county I live in here in the UK, about a giant who threatens a small villag. They unite to deal with the problem and get rid of the giant.

    After this, I asked the young trainees to create a new story drama with me exploring a threat to their own village in the Nilgiris. After a long pause, during which I thought they were at a loss to know what I was on about, the main Teacher Trainer told me that the threat was alcohol - introduced to the community by government sponsored traders. I then explored with them (through open questioning) what form that threat would take and how it would develop.

    The student teachers decided on a story, in which a traditional male tribal dancer was persuaded to try alcohol by outsiders. Soon he and others were drinking heavily, and neglecting traditional cultural values. When some of the women tried intervening, challenging what the men were doing, they ended up getting beaten.

    On a positive note, the students decided to call a special tribal council meeting to resolve the problem, which resulted in the sale of alcohol being banned in the village.

    As a middle class westerner, who likes a glass of wine from time to time, it's certainly not for me to say alcohol should be banned in India on the basis of a Drama Workshop. But it does highlight the problem and suggest it needs resolving in a manner appropriate to the particular culture and traditions of the community in question, rather than in an individualistic, freedom of choice style.

  7. #7 Anuradha krishna 29 Apr 13

    Dear Mari,

    Your blog Touches a chord in our hearts! We too are in a backward adivasi area in Tamilnadu and we se the havoc created by alchohol and women suffering everyday! So we agree with what you say whole heartedly.
    In November when the Tamilnadu government decided to open its subsidised liquor shop in our valley, 300 women including us, stood in the rain for 6 hours ,protested and sent the liquor lorries back. But our victory was shortlived. The shop, with the complete support of the men in the valley, was opened in the middle of the night with police protection a few months later.As you say revenue is more important for governments than the welfare of women and children!

  8. #8 Raymond232 27 May 13

    well the right to drinking alcohol is the same as right to freedom. Well, remember that popular feminist saying, ’Dont teach women how to wear clothes, teach men not to rape’, why dont u say now, ’Dont shut down alcohol shops, teach men not to be drunk while beating their wives’ !!!

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

Read more by Mari Marcel Thekaekara

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