Wining in Drought Land

Wining in Drought Land
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While rural Maharashtra goes through a crushing drought, the consumption of wine in the state has gone up

RURAL MAHARASHTRA IS going through a crushing drought and water consumption is obviously down. But there are some surprising changes happening in liquor consumption in the same areas, like the sales of wine going up and country liquor down. The consumption of beer and Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) is also on the rise. While there are a number of reasons being cited for this, the drought, oddly, is one of them.

According to an annual report of the state’s Excise Department, wine is emerging as a popular drink in rural districts. Its sales have shown the highest percentage of growth, at 10.66 per cent for the period between January 2015 and March 2016, among all alcoholic drinks. In absolute numbers, wine consumption went up from about 3.9 million bulk litres to almost 4.3 million. Likewise, IMFL and beer saw steep increases in consumption in drought-affected districts, while country liquor, ‘the poor man’s drink’, saw a decline in sales.

Country liquor is much cheaper, largely consumed by the masses and more potent than wine, beer and IMFL. But last year, prices of country liquor underwent a sharp increase, and state excise commissioner Vijay Singhal feels that its reduced consumption could be due to a hike in excise duty on it. “Drought is also an important reason,” he says.

The state’s Marathwada and Vidarbha regions, which have been reeling under a severe drought for a while now, have also had sharp dips in country liquor consumption. Nandurbar, a Tribal dominated district, now has the highest consumption of wine in the state, with about 70 per cent being consumed there. Drought-hit Bhandara district in Vidarbha has the highest consumption of beer, with 14.3 per cent sold there. Another drought-hit district, Yavatmal, which has a high proportion of landowners from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, recorded about 48 per cent of all IMFL sales in the state. Correspondingly, there is a 6 per cent fall in sales of licensed country liquor in Vidarbha, and 12 per cent in the Marathwada region.

Nandurbar’s high wine consumption rate might have something to do with the district bordering Gujarat, which has an alcohol prohibition policy. Many claim that Nandurbar fills the thirst of Gujarati businessmen and others who drive down for a drink. “Several Gujaratis have started drinking wine. It is an alcoholic drink without the potent hit. Wine sales in Nandurbar are high due to this,” says Ajay Surte, a licensed liquor shop owner in Nandurbar. But the wine drinkers of the region are not really connoisseurs, according to those who sell it. Most wines sold are not matured for long periods of time, as is typically done abroad. “In this region, people feel that if wine is stored for a long time, it will get spoilt. The lower quality wines are more popular than those drunk by the urban population. A lesser vintage is also said to give a better high than wine which has been stored for years,” says Surte.

Paromita Goswami, an anti-liquor activist whose campaign brought about a ban on alcohol in Chandrapur district of east Maharashtra, doesn’t find it surprising that people in drought areas are drinking more wine and IMFL than country liquor. “Though country liquor is cheaper,” says Goswami, “it is not about affordability. It is about accessibility. Since 1970, no licences have been given to open new country liquor shops, while beer bars, wine shops and other liquor stores are being given licences indiscriminately. Even the remotest parts of the state has licensed liquor shops selling beer and IMFL. The government is making it available to the people. They are drinking more because it is available more.”

Excise Department officials attribute the phenomenon to the setting of targets for the penetration of these shops. “We are given certain targets for revenue collection. How do you meet the targets? We encourage people to set up more licensed liquor shops. Anyone who comes to us is given a licence—as licence seekers come with political pressure. Most of the liquor shops belong to local politicians,” says an official who does not want to be named.

Urban areas in Maharashtra have meanwhile recorded more sales of beer than wine, whose consumption stands at 500,000 bulk litres in comparison to last year’s 474,000 bulk litres. Mumbaiites consumed 9 million litres of IMFL in comparison to 8.6 million bulk litres consumed by December 2015. Beer sales in the city stood at 17 million bulk litres in comparison to the 16.6 million in December last year. Thane, which is about 35 km from Mumbai, shows a 14 per cent increase in wine sales. An official of the Excise Department claims that more women are drinking wine and that could also be one of the reasons behind the increasing sales of the drink. Nasik, the so-called ‘wine capital of India’, saw just a mere 3 per cent increase in the consumption of this drink. Likewise, drought-hit Aurangabad, considered the brewery of Maharashtra, saw a 3 to 4 per cent fall in the recorded consumption of beer there.