THINGS are not what they seem to be in the hazy world of liquor commerce in Kerala, arguably the State with the highest per capita consumption of alcohol in India.
Last August, the Congress-led coalition government abruptly launched a war on alcohol with its decision to introduce total prohibition in stages over a decade by shutting down all the 730 liquor bars in the private sector. In addition, 10 per cent each of all government retail outlets are to be closed every financial year.
The apparently bold liquor policy, endorsed by a Division Bench of the Kerala High Court on March 31 after a six-month-long legal battle, is but a façade behind which lies an unpleasant truth: irrespective of their public statements, very few people in the government want the policy to succeed. Moreover, closing down the bars is unlikely to address the problem it is meant to solve: the craving of an increasing number of people for alcohol.
According to an estimate by the non-governmental organisation Alcohol & Drug Information Centre (ADIC)-India, consumers in Kerala spent Rs.26,218 crore on liquor in 2013-14, while the government got a revenue of Rs.7,511 crore. The NGO has been conducting regular studies on drinking and drug use in Kerala for the past 25 years. ADIC-India’s director Johnson J. Edayaranmula said the results of a recent study, using new World Health Organisation (WHO) norms, indicated that the per capita consumption, when seen in the light of absolute alcohol content in various drinks, would be higher than 8.3 litres a year, the figure arrived at by a previous study. Earlier efforts to introduce prohibition or to curtail supplies only made the business more lucrative. But Chief Minister Oommen Chandy surprised his opponents in the party (who were arguing only for the permanent closure of nearly 418 substandard bars) by announcing out of the blue that all bars, including the 312 that had the required standards and were still functioning, would then have to be closed down to avoid discrimination.
In a sense, the ban on bars came about ( Frontline , September 19, 2014) through the force of circumstances, following an observation in the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India against the non-stop “regularisation” of substandard bars over several years (from 1992) by successive governments. However, the Division Bench , while considering 124 appeals against the revised liquor policy, upheld the government’s decision.
The powerful liquor lobby had never been so shaken. It has often turned political decisions upside down and bent government pleas in the courts to its advantage. But, in this instance, the court case has so far been moving in the “wrong” direction, with a Congress Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA), with the blessings of the State party president, unexpectedly going on appeal to “shore up” the government’s stand.
Bar owners, who are holding the ruling United Democratic Front to ransom with allegations that they had paid hefty bribes to three members of the State Cabinet, including, prominently, Finance Minister K.M. Mani (leader of the Kerala Congress(M), the third largest constituent of the UDF), have decided to go on appeal to the Supreme Court.
The deep roots that the liquor lobby has run in Kerala’s political landscape have seen it through such testing times before. So has the fact that it is the State government that gains the most from authorised liquor sales. About 23 per cent of the government’s revenue comes from the sale of liquor, a commodity that has always been taxed heavily. The revenue from alcohol increased from Rs.40.74 crore in 1987-88 to Rs.10,615 crore in 2014-15. Unrecorded sale and consumption is, by the rule of thumb, estimated to be double the recorded figures.
Kerala’s liquor market has seen an annual growth of 12 to 67 per cent in the past 30 years, Johnson Edayaranmula said. The use of alcohol has spread among all sections of society, and is considered one of the “the biggest health risks in Kerala”, nurtured and nourished by a murky bunch of businessmen, politicians, enforcement officials and an invisible mafia.
Tippler's paradise Not many have paused to consider how Kerala became a tippler’s paradise, where a generation earlier there was but only the occasional toddy shop round a dingy corner, maybe, and addiction was unheard of as a health or socially disturbing issue.
It is a story that may touch a chord in many other regions of India.
The first signs of trouble in the rather quaint original setting came in the early 1970s when toddy production went down, mainly because of a dearth of toddy tappers. It was a time of economic hardship and social change in Kerala, and the exodus to the Gulf was only just beginning. More and more people were getting educated and aspiring for better opportunities. It was also a period of growing labour scarcity.
A prominent liquor businessman who had witnessed those changes told Frontline that the smell of illegal profits, political and official patronage and budding links with distilleries outside Kerala gradually led to arrack replacing toddy as the drink of choice, the growth of arrack shops masquerading as toddy shops, the smuggling in of illegal spirits from other States to make a variety of the country brew, soaring profits, and, for sure, more customers hooked to alcohol.
A thriving environment and hunger for profits ensued. And the State soon saw its first major liquor tragedies: at Punalur in Kollam district (1981, death toll 32) and Vypeen island in Ernakulam district (1982, death toll 78).
The culprit in both these incidents was methyl alcohol (methanol), a poisonous substance that has the same odour and taste as ethyl alcohol (the intoxicating ingredient of many alcoholic beverages such as beer and wine, and distilled spirits such as arrack, whisky, brandy and rum). Ethyl alcohol also has several industrial uses, and is often transported in bulk in a denatured form (rendered unfit for drinking) by adding methanol.
Liquor traders found it helpful to boost profits by smuggling in denatured ethanol in huge quantities. Once a consignment reached its destination, the “methylated spirit” was diluted at the retail outlets, made less potent by adding other ingredients on the basis of secret formulas, and sold as cheap, spiced liquor to the unsuspecting customer. Even the slightest of mistakes or a deliberate act of sabotage during dilution or blending would be fatal, as it happened in the case of most illicit liquor tragedies, and could mar one’s business for ever.
The Punalur-Vypeen incidents that came in quick succession caused a stir and triggered anti-liquor struggles in many parts of Kerala, championed by the Church and with women at the forefront. Major centres of illicit smuggling and distilling, especially in the coastal and border areas of Kerala, became the focus of protesters and police and excise raids. For a while, people were scared to drink and shop owners were scared to sell. There was chaos and the trade went furtive, causing anguish to a growing body of regulars.
The price of Indian-made foreign liquor (IMFL), including whisky, rum, brandy, vodka and gin, was, at that time beyond the means of the common man. But when the government gradually reduced the duty on IMFL products, Kerala saw the emergence of “wine shops” and “brandy shops” which mostly retailed cheap rum or brandy at almost the same price as that of arrack. A lot of customers switched over from country liquor such as arrack and toddy to such cheap “spirits”.
As wages went up and a regular stream of Gulf remittances began reaching Kerala homes, more and more people, including a large section of those who were struggling to keep pace with even this modest economic rumble and the inequities caused by it, began to embrace the new alternatives. Some wine shop owners launched their own distilleries. Very soon, the era of bars and bar hotels emerged. Where, earlier, people had to line up in front of brandy and wine shops and have their drink and food outside, bars provided them a place to wine and dine and spend time at leisure. IMFL became popular along with arrack and other country liquor. Toddy lost its earlier appeal and toddy shops began selling illicit arrack or toddy mixed with illicit spirits.
Liquor consumption rose again, causing alarm, as the effects were already being felt both within and outside households. For the first time, people started noticing a difference between “leisure drinkers” and “problematic ones”. Staggering walks, slurred conversations and ugly brawls that marked the neighbourhood of retail outlets became a part of Kerala’s street culture.
Within a few years of the first two liquor tragedies, the government took over (in a phased manner) the wholesale distribution of liquor. The Kerala State Beverages Corporation (Bevco) was formed to procure spirits from distilleries (mostly outside Kerala) and arrange the blending, bottling, sealing and distribution of arrack and for dealing with the sale of IMFL. By 2001, the majority of the IMFL retail outlets were run by the corporation.
Liquor traders always adapted to dramatic policy changes with calm flexibility. Many former country liquor contractors became bar owners. Gulf returnees put their money in the business. Protests, government restrictions and taxes continued to rise, but nothing seemed to deter the hardy lot and the business was obviously good. Although anti-liquor movements, too, gained strength and awareness about alcohol abuse rose, within a short time, the liquor lobby spread its wings in all walks of Kerala society and became a powerful force that greased palms or used its muscle or its riches to bend the State’s politics and policies.
In 1987, as the anti-liquor agitations supported by the Church and other such bodies were gaining strength, the UDF government led by K. Karunakaran appointed a committee led by the freedom fighter and veteran Congress leader A.P. Udayabhanu to suggest measures to streamline the liquor trade, obviously an appeasement measure taken on the eve of an election.
Several parts of Kerala (58 per cent of its geographical area, according to a former Excise Department official) were under total prohibition during the period between 1948 and 1967, as per the provisions of various excise laws. A uniform Abkari Act came into effect only on May 11, 1967. In all such regions (that now form part of Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam, Kasargod, Kannur, Kozhikode, Palakkad and Malappuram districts), illicit liquor trade gained visible strength and retained it in later years. It was clearly an early warning to politicians who paid lip service to the idea of total prohibition while simultaneously encouraging and feeding on the liquor lobby.
Whatever the public pronouncements, one way or the other, key government decisions, especially those meant to rein in the trade, almost always went in favour of the liquor lobby. A succinct example is the way successive governments acted on the report of the Udayabhanu Committee, which recommended, among other things, that (i) the government should introduce prohibition in stages, and (ii) that it should encourage the use of milder varieties of alcohol such as toddy and beer as alternatives to strong spirits.
The taste of liquor The recommendations were submitted to a subsequent Left Democratic Front ( LDF) government, and it did not act on it. In 1992, when the UDF under Karunakaran came back to power with the election promise of a stage-by-stage introduction of prohibition, it decided not to sanction new licences to open bars, to cancel the licences of bars that did not have at least two-star facilities, and, significantly, to launch 63 beer parlours in various districts under the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation (KTDC) to promote milder forms of alcohol.
According to Johnson Edayaranmula, though the decision on closing substandard bars was announced in 1992, neither the Karunakaran government nor the ones that followed took any interest in implementing them. But the KTDC started its beer parlours throughout the length and breath of Kerala. They have grown in numbers and have, along with Bevco outlets and all the bars, played a major role in retaining a steady taste for liquor in Kerala society.
In 1996, like Oommen Chandy today, A.K. Antony, who succeeded Karunakaran as the UDF Chief Minister in the last year of the coalition’s controversial term, hastily decided to ban the production and sale of arrack and impose a 200 per cent tax on IMFL, again on the eve of a politically exigent Assembly election.
The UDF lost the elections, and the ban did not stop drinkers from consuming arrack or IMFL. Instead, in the annual auctions held just before the ban came into effect on April 1 that year, Kerala witnessed incredible scenes of liquor sharks vying with each other to quote exorbitant rates and buy rights to continue to sell liquor in bars and in toddy shops.
The subsequent LDF government did nothing to promote the Antony government’s contentious policy. Arrack continued to be the most popular drink of the common people. But the entire arrack business went underground. The majority of the toddy shops that were bought at high rates began to do brisk sales of illicit arrack or toddy mixed with clandestine spirits. In the IMFL sector, the trade in seconds (genuine liquor smuggled in without taxes) became the antidote to the situation and began to fetch huge profits for the licensees.
Barely, four years into the arrack ban, the extent to which traders would go in their search for profits became painfully clear when the last of the major tragedies caused by spurious liquor in Kerala led to the death of 39 people at Kalluvathukkal and surrounding areas in Kollam district. It was the first such major tragedy in the State that was scrutinised by an emerging television media and brought to light not just the strength and proclivities of the liquor network but also the depth of alcohol abuse that came in its wake.
Recent years have been marked by an absence of major liquor tragedies in Kerala. The shock of past experiences has made many players use extreme caution while dealing with illicit liquor. A monopolistic scheme of things had emerged in the bar sector, with nearly a dozen businessmen owning nine to 12 bars each and marginalising the small players. The closure of bars has hit these big players the most now. The government offered a steady supply of liquor to them through Bevco, and steady gains. Sale of smuggled seconds liquor offered “only a negligible extra margin”, one of them said.
“Illicit spirits and clandestine ‘seconds’ sales flourish only in times of scarcity, as it did during the arrack ban. The recent government action closing all the bars in Kerala, leaves the door wide open for another liquor tragedy. After the initial wait, a strong spirits lobby will emerge. If past experience is a lesson, its members will import spirits, launch makeshift bottling units and start selling it as ‘military rum’ or under some such pretext. In the place of arrack earlier, the clandestine sale of ‘duplicate’ liquor will boom. Excise officials and politicians can anticipate a period of high profits,” a veteran bar owner said.
It is strange that the government’s attempt to introduce total prohibition over a decade is not really meant to address the problem of Kerala’s craze for liquor. The declaration of such a far-reaching reform was merely a tool for managing an urgent political exigency. A 10-year target is much beyond the present government’s remaining term. If, as the Chief Minister’s opponents allege, the government was indeed looking up to the court to come out of a difficult political corner, its lack of seriousness has been rudely shaken by the High Court ruling. The court has upheld the phased ban plan (excluding bars in the five-star category) and said that such a policy, irrespective of its merit, was the prerogative of the government. The court also has ruled (in line with many similar judgments elsewhere in India) that access to a bar “is not a citizen’s fundamental right”.
Proneness to addiction Meanwhile, profligate consumption is clearly placing a huge psychological, physical, financial and social burden on individuals, families, society and the government. Alcohol use was at the root of 20 per cent of hospital admissions, 59 per cent of crimes, 40 per cent of road accidents, and 80 per cent of divorce and domestic violence cases in the State, according to Johnson Edayaranmula.
“Proneness to addiction and its intensity is increasing in Kerala society and its impact is definitely being felt. The evidence is from the people who are coming in for direct clinical intervention, those who face a number of psycho-social problems, and people admitted in hospitals with problems that have indirect linkage with alcohol abuse,” Dr K. Gireesh, Coordinator of the National Health Mission’s State Mental Health Programme, told Frontline .
The ADIC-India studies have shown four clearly distinct patterns—reduction in the age of initiation to alcohol use; increase in the number of young drinkers (adolescents and youth); increasing consumption by women, especially young women; and hazardous or harmful drinking among users.
Answering questions on various facets of the issue, Gireesh said stress and lack of support and coping mechanisms are evident at all levels and that the impact of globalisation was severe and was growing in the State. While primary stress appraisal is often found to be a bit more exaggerated in the State vis-a-vis other societies, traditional support systems have disintegrated. “People are, therefore, trying to cope with short-term defensive strategies such as substance abuse. The use of other addictive substances, too, is on the rise in Kerala, especially among the youth.”
On how various strata of Kerala society were coping with the problem, he said social drinking was high among the rich, whereas alcoholism was high among the poor. There is a more pathological pattern of drinking among the have-nots and more of a socially led, not so compromising health-wise in general, pattern among the rich. But the tendency for addiction is there among all people.
Gireesh explained: “If you ask me if there is alcoholism among the rich, I would say yes. But the rich who have this disposition may take treatment from very good centres. Intellectually they have a support system and precipitate stress factors that push them into a relapse are fewer. But the poor have to face more of life’s difficulties. In certain sections, alcohol abuse exists as part of their subculture, stress factors are ever present, and relapse factors are so much more complex. Such differences are real. Even treatment facilities are available for the rich, but not the poor. The poor cannot afford, for example, to stay in a de-addiction centre for over a month without an income or somebody to look after their children. So economic factors definitely play a role and impact the poor more.
“You never get a chance to know what is happening in their world, the world of the faceless poor, the drunkards who suffer. The poor man’s drink, known by such rustic names as anthi [dusk], pulari [dawn] or anamayakki [that which will put an elephant to sleep], is definitely more dangerous. It is also a tradition among women engaged in hard labour to use country liquor of various forms in their daily lives. It is a parallel world that never comes in mainstream discourses. They remain unreported and their interests never find a place in liquor policies.
“If we do not address these problems, alcohol abuse or addiction will increase in Kerala. The demand is already so huge and intense. And, if there is a demand, supply will find its way. Instead of adopting demand-reduction strategies, we are adopting supply-reduction strategies. That is a myopic perspective. We cannot use such options as an instrument for political management.”