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The Alcohol Muddle in Kerala

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Despite judicial approval for the state’s liquor policy, the jury is still out on its efficacy
The Supreme Court verdict of 30 December was supposed to be a victory for the state’s Oommen Chandy government, already hit by a bar bribery scandal that stormed Kerala over a year ago. Two days before the end of 2015, the government won a case in the apex court versus bar owners who had asked for judicial intervention against the closure of bars serving hard liquor in the state. “[Bar owners] are injured snakes and will go to any extent,” says TN Pratapan, an MLA and a powerful voice in the ruling UDF who wants a complete ban of alcohol in the state—phase by phase. “It’s better the government review the policy,” says Elegant Binoy, a key player among bar owners in Kerala, “Or they’ll have a tough time.”

It is widely acknowledged that liquor will be a major cause of worry for the government over the remaining six months of its term. KM Mani, the state’s former finance minister, was knocked out of his chair by the bar bribery case—a direct impact of the closure of bars. A needle of suspicion points towards K Babu, excise minister, as well. When Biju Ramesh, a prominent player in the liquor industry, went up against Mani with disclosures of bribery, there were many bar owners who were sceptical about the good that would come of such a move and resisted going public with other such stories. However, the scene has changed now. Bar owners see their last ray of hope vanishing, and so little stops them from revealing their own experiences.

The Supreme Court has upheld the liquor policy, asking the state government not to water it down and criticising it for letting beer and wine parlours operate in the state. Meanwhile, even the opposition has taken to ‘alcohol morality’, already deep seated in a state that’s known for India’s highest per capita consumption of liquor. No one dares talk against the liquor policy, though there is good reason to worry that it is inherently flawed. Official figures appear to speak in favour of it, though further analysis throws up complexities. According to data provided by the Kerala State Beverages Corp (KSBC), alcohol consumption has dropped by 20.3 per cent over the past 20 months (the first phase of closure came into effect on 1 April 2014). As many as 418 bars were closed in the first phase and the remaining 312 (except 27 bars in five-star hotels) were sealed in the second phase. Most of these have been converted to beer and wine parlours, which led to an increase of 700 in their official count. As a result, beer drinking has risen by 63.7 per cent in Kerala. “There is 12 per cent alcohol in [strong] beer. People drink it without adding water. While consuming liquor, its 48 per cent alcohol is mixed with water. How can we claim that the consumption of absolute alcohol is reduced?” asks Sajeevan, a senior journalist working with Kerala Kaumudi. The abuse of non-alcoholic drugs has also risen at an alarming rate, a fact admitted by Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala in the Assembly.

An investigation by Open does not support the government’s data suggesting a fall in alcohol consumption. At de-addiction centres, psychologists and psychiatrists do not have the confidence to ratify that claim. At random, we visited ten such centres in ten districts of Kerala, and the conclusion that can be drawn is that there is no change in the number of alcohol addicts coming in.

What is more worrying is a significant increase in the number of non-alcoholic drug abusers. “There is 60 per cent increase [here],” says Dr KS David, director, Central Institute of Behavioral Sciences, Kochi. “The abuse of non-alcoholic drugs is on the rise. Most of them are youngsters in the age group of 15 to 30. I think the middle-class youth who used to go to bars do not want to carry the shame of standing in a queue at a beverage outlet. Thus, they tend to switch to non-alcoholic drugs like gaanja (marijuana).”According to Dr David, the ban on bars is absurd. “Now, every household becomes a bar. A lot of women come with the complaint that their husbands have started keeping liquor at home and drink in the presence of children. I think this is going to become a serious menace.”

“There is no change in the number of patients seeking liquor deaddiction, but it is alarming to see that the number of people coming with addiction for non-alcoholic drugs has increased. It must be a direct impact of the new liquor policy,” says Reverend Shiji Sam, director, Navajeeva Kendram, Pathanamthitta. “The most commonly used drugs are gaanja and paan masaala. The normal recovery time for a liquor addict is around 21 days, but treatment for addiction to non-alcoholic drugs takes more time—in some cases, up to two months.” Siji Sam’s concern is shared by most doctors and counsellors at deaddiction centres in Kerala. “Banning liquor is a foolish decision,” says Dr Shahul Ameen, psychiatrist, Centre for Addiction Recovery, Changanassery, Kottayam district. “While the number of alcohol addicts remains unchanged, a new problem has arisen. Most of the women who come here complain about their houses becoming bars. There are cases in which wives face sexual harassment from their husbands’ companions.” Dr Ameen vouches for Dr David’s observation that households are turning into bars after the ban. “If there is a will, there is a way. Those who are addicted to liquor have a hundred ways to get it.” Dr Shahul cites Gujarat as an example of a failed experiment. “Illegal liquor is available in plenty in Gujarat. Malayalee men working in Gujarat come to Kerala for de-addiction. Right now, I have one patient from Gujarat. He says that there are agents who deliver illegal liquor at home.” Dr Ameen is of the opinion that consumption can be reduced only through awareness, not through bans. “People should be trained to practise civilised drinking habits. Malayalee men don’t sip, but gulp,” he says. Shaji Bhaskar, who runs Mystic Yoga Wellness Centre at Palakkad, also observes an increase in the number of non-alcoholic drug abusers. “I’m not sure whether this is a direct impact of the closure of bars, but from my experience I can say that the young generation has either shifted to drugs from liquor, or may be using both.”

“[This is] the most unrealistic solution to a real problem,” says Professor Johns, the author of Kudiyante Kumbasaram (‘Confessions of a Drunkard’), his autobiography. Professor Johns, who had soaked his life in liquor for over a decade, is now running a de-addiction centre and has become an active campaigner against liquor. As head of the Department of Philosophy at Sree Kerala Varma College, Thrissur, he doesn’t buy the government’s argument. “No ban will help; what we need is awareness. I don’t think people have stopped drinking only for the reason that the bars have closed. They manage to get liquor somehow and drink in the presence of women and children.” Mangalam also sees no change in the number of liquor addicts seeking treatment. “There is a steady increase in the number annually. While this year also shows the same level of growth, I am worried about the increased abuse of nonalcoholic drugs. Parents bring children as young as nine. Many children in the age group of 9-to-15 are addicted to paan masaala. There are cases of addiction to other drugs too.”

On the other hand, Johnson Edayaranmula, director, Alcohol and Drug Information Centre, supports the ban on bars. “I am optimistic about this policy. There may be repercussions in the beginning, but figures show that the consumption of liquor has definitely come down.” He does not accept that statistics showing reduced consumption are not corroborated by the experiences and observations of counsellors, psychiatrists and managers of de-addiction centres. “It cannot be taken as a parameter,” says Edyaranmula. According to him, Malayalee drinkers are not as bad as they have been portrayed by the media. “I think 80 per cent of them were social drinkers who don’t need medical assistance to stop drinking. They might have stopped on their own. Those who fall in the category of ‘alcohol disease’ are only 20 per cent, and they might not have stopped. There is a drop of 269 million litres over the last 20 months.” Edayaranmula is in favour of the phasewise closing down of booze-serving outlets, as the state intends. “I am not a staunch opponent of liquor, but I think the current scenario in Kerala needs to be changed.”

Dr Mohammed Aneez of Manassanthi Hospital, Malappuram, which runs a deaddiction centre, suspects that liquor is as widely available as ever. “There is no change in the number of people seeking treatment. There are agents who provide door delivery. I think those who do not want to take the pain of standing in a queue avail of this facility.” A de-addiction centre at Karanthur Markaz established by the Sunni leader Kanthapuram AP Aboobacker Musliyaar has a different story to tell. “There is a 50 per cent reduction in the number of patients seeking treatment, especially in recent months. I don’t know whether these figures have any direct link with the liquor policy of the government. I guess mild drinkers might have stopped in the very first phase of the closure. Muslims who used to go to bars would not prefer to stand in queues before liquor outlets in public. The burden of [a] religious tag is heavier upon them” says Dr Mohammad Sherif, psychiatrist at this centre.

A recent survey conducted by Kannur Medical College (KMC) of liquor consumers queued up at a KSBC outlet reveals that 79 per cent of regular drinkers do not want to seek treatment. “They find it normal and are confident they can stop drinking when they want to,” says Dr Sajeev Kumar, assistant professor, Department of Psychiatry, KMC, who led the survey. Interestingly, 68 per cent have spoken in favour of the ban. “There are two possibilities—either they honestly want to stop drinking and welcome a situation in which no liquor is available, or it must be another reflection of Malayalee hypocrisy.”

Dr Kumar also rejects the official claim that consumption of liquor has come down in the state. “The fear of losing friends and social life is another major barrier in seeking de-addiction treatment,” says the professor. “We have to understand this phenomenon by analysing the reflections at our level. There is no visible increase in the number of patients coming with delirium tremens (withdrawal symptoms) as a result of the closure of bars. In the beginning of every Sabarimala season, a lot of men come for treatment with signs of alcohol withdrawal delirium. [Sabarimala pilgrims are supposed to observe 41 days of fasting in which they abstain from consuming non-vegetarian food and alcohol.] This year, there were at least 30 patients who sought medical help. What we have to understand is that those who drink liquor have many ways to get alcohol. I have witnessed bystanders smuggling in bottles even to the hospital.” “Where do these men go and how do they spend time?” asks Dr KS David. Those who were used to spending their evenings in bars are now suddenly thrown out of that social space. “This is a serious problem. If Malayalee men stop drinking, they end up in their individual spaces with no social life.” Dr David affirms that closing down bars all of a sudden is not practical.

All said, it is too early to arrive at a conclusion. Official figures speak of success. Those involved with the treatment of alcohol addicts notice no difference. And there it stands: a muddled policy with no more clarity than someone sozzled by a drink too many can claim.