Monday, 28 September 2020

Caught in the Web of Alcohol

Updated: May 3, 2016 11:47 am

Social drinking became an acceptable norm of life for an entire generation of Indians as soon as the first flush of the fulfillment of a lofty ambition and national pride, which had come to the fore with the nation’s independence, started subsiding. With the disappearance of the respected leaders of the Independence Movement, who had willingly sacrificed their youth, personal liberty and family life for the sake of the country’s freedom from the colonial yoke, there was a void of men and women of great trust and moral stature for the youth of the day to emulate. English became the official language and lingua franca that united different parts of the country. The country’s education system that was a takeoff on the British legacy contributed in no small measure to the imbibing of the values of the West by the Indian youth. They got lured by the down-to-earth pragmatism of the Western lifestyle as opposed to the philosophical and cultural moorings of the Indian concept and perception of life.

English newspapers, magazines, novels and movies, and subsequently satellite television, which had generous dollops of Western inputs, captured the imagination of the Indian youth in a big way and stoked the fire of curiosity in them about life in the Western world. With a shift in focus of development from agricultural to industrial economy, to smoke and swig became the hallmark of one who had arrived in the changing cultural milieu of a nation in transition in its march to a brave new world. Romantic film heroes or macho villains were seldom seen on the screen or the cover of a glossy film magazine without a cigarette precariously dangling from their lips, a liquor-induced dreamy look in their eyes or a drink ready at their elbow.

Diehard fans of dashing film stars, wanting to be cast in the same mould as their heroes, or anti-heroes took to smoking and drinking as a fashion or style statement.  Pictures of spiritual and nationalist heroes like Swami Vivekananda, Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi adorning the walls of the rooms of youngsters gave way to those of film heroes or sexy vamps who were depicted on screen as hearty tipplers. With the preceding generation of Indians having already won for them a hard-earned independence by foregoing personal comforts and liberty, the youth of the day deemed it fit to bounce into the scene and allow themselves to a relaxed lifestyle of which social drinking was a cornerstone. Whether their spirits were soaring on joyous occasions or plummeting on gloomy ones, drinks provided a solid support and companionship.

Globalisation and Alcohol Industry

By the time globalisation dawned and Indian economy opened up in a big way, the liquor industry in the country had come of age. Indian-made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) started doing brisk business, elbowing out the cheaper brands of ‘desi’ drinks like ‘feni,’ ‘toddy,’ ‘arrack,’ etc. Growing disposable incomes, rapid urbanisation of rural populations, greater acceptance of social drinking, lowering of age-limit for the youngsters to drink as well as commitments to the World Trade Organization to reduce quantitative restrictions on alcohol imports, had the cumulative effect of multinational liquor companies identifying India as an attractive market for their wares and entering the fray by starting their own production plants in the country. The local alcohol industry, on its part, was quick to seize upon this emerging market and introduced new products such as flavored and mild alcoholic products, aimed at attracting young women and men among the non-drinking sections of the society.

Opportunities and Excuses Galore

Pubs started dotting the cultural horizon to cater to upmarket customers, yuppies and celebrities who needed exclusive and secluded waterholes, away from home, to thrash out a sticky point, clinch a business deal, settle a personal score or merely do some networking, with their contacts, all over a glass of the amber liquid or frothy beer. You don’t do these things over a box of laddoos or glass of sherbet to the accompaniment of a ‘Badai Ho!’, do you? It does not measure up, by any stretch of the imagination, to the ambience created by the proposing of a toast followed by the clinking of glasses and a throaty unison of “Cheers!” The longer the time spent in a pub and the more the liquor passed around, the more garrulous the actors became and stronger and deeper their bonds of friendship or association!

To complete the predictable cycle of human behaviour, when a clean, good guy was betrayed by an unscrupulous business partner or a scheming friend or rejected by his lady love, his first port of call was a pub for drowning his sorrow in a glass of liquor, with an invisible and inaudible guitar gently weeping in the background. With the availability of a stage for a wide array of occasions ranging from love to business to hatching conspiracies to clinching deals, people found no dearth of opportunities to hang out at their favourite pubs. The more affluent and well-connected people had their exclusive clubs where liquor opened and closed doors of fabulous opportunities. It even became fashionable for a young man to be seen sporting a brooding and sombre look and ever so gently disheveled at the workplace in the mornings and exude a nonchalant demeanor despite the telltale signs of a hangover of the previous day’s party scene.

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Where men are pushing the envelope, could women be far behind? Indian women do not lag behind their male compatriots either in education or career or other fields any longer. Besides, the shackles of matrimony have been loosening up. The joint family system where there was a careful monitoring of a young lady’s movements and whereabouts has long gone by into the dustbins of history, never to come back. Working women stay away from home with friends or colleagues. The concept of live-in relationship has caught up and is very much in vogue; and for all intents and purposes, the practice is here to stay. An evening with friends, male or female, at the pub is no different for a self-perceived emancipated working woman from quality time spent at the coffee house. What is more, why should the boys have all the fun?

The new found joy of earning one’s own income, albeit by dint of hard work,  independence from the watchful eye of elderly relatives and the absence of family encumbrances make a deadly cocktail for the hard-to-resist temptation of asserting one’s personality, both for young men and women who find nothing wrong in aping the West. Booze emboldens them, more often than not, from going the whole hog although they might not be inclined to do so initially. The descent down the slope is, however, often slippery. What starts off as fun ends up as pain, often unstoppable. And one finds, to one’s horror, that there is now no going back home.

Boozing at weddings, openly or discretely, has always been considered part of the scene in many an Indian state just as firing into the air by macho men in a boisterous mood. Nor is drinking frowned upon anymore on festive occasions like Diwali or Holi. The ushering in of the New Year is incomplete if you are not part of a gala party where the chimes of the clock at the midnight are drowned by the uncorking sound of champagne bottles! Liquor carries you on its crest from the year that is no more to the year that is just born. Not to belabour a point, suffice it to say that drinking has been accepted as a behavioural norm or part of Indian lifestyle, although there is still many a household in the country, especially in the middle class, where drinking is considered a social evil and alcohol a taboo.

Reason for Farewell to Prohibition

The people are, however, desperately holding on to their modicum of the principle of abstention from alcohol despite having lost hope that the society would ever be rid altogether of the evil phenomenon of drinking. The reason for this feeling of despondency is that except Gujarat, Nagaland and parts of Manipur and the Union Territory (UT) of Lakshadweep, the rest of the country has already given up on the policy of Prohibition. The Constituent Assembly of independent India had included prohibition as one of the Directive Principles of State Policy. In practice, however, alcohol policy devolved to individual States with the aim of enabling them to formulate their own regulations and levy their own taxes. Many states get 15–20 per cent of their revenue from taxation on alcohol, which happens to be their second largest income after general sales tax/VAT.

The revenue aims of state governments are in conflict with their health and welfare aims as they strive to boost sales by imposing annual incremental quotas on production and sales of alcohol. The reasons advanced by the states or UTs, which have allowed manufacture and sale of liquor, span an entire gamut of excuses. They include the spectre of bootlegging threatening to haunt in the absence of regulation on manufacture and sale of alcohol, hardcore drinkers becoming victims to illicit liquor, inability to strictly enforce prohibition on account of shortage of police personnel and drain on the state’s scarce resources and the likely ensuing of law and order problems. Furthermore, some states also highlight the absurdity of enforcing the virtue of abstention from alcohol in this age of changing times and outlook of people in matters of food and drinks.

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However, the most important and valid reason advanced against bidding farewell to prohibition is the lure of revenues that the states find too difficult to resist.

A Case Study

Tamil Nadu, for instance, has found a veritable milch cow in not allowing the sale of alcohol by the private sector. Instead, the state government itself is managing the liquor business. Control over the wholesale and retail vending of IMFL is exercised by the state government-owned Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation (TASMAC) through a network of nearly 7,000 outlets through the length and breadth of the state. The earnings of TASMAC during 2013-14 amounted to a staggering figure of Rs 23,400 crore. The revenue is utilised by the state government for defraying the costs of its subsidies and freebies, needless to say, all to the advantage of the ruling party and publicity of its populist schemes and measures. Despite vigorous opposition from various quarters, the State government is finding it too difficult, nay, unwilling to forego the lucrative revenue by introducing prohibition and is relentless in its current policy of allowing the sale of liquor. Similar is the case of all the other States where prohibition is not in force.

Central Government to Act

Whatever the excuses for not having Prohibition in force or explanations for a State’s inability to implement the policy, it is evident that allowing manufacture and sale of liquor especially by the state itself, is both unethical and inadmissible. This is primarily on account of the irrefutable fact that the principal role and responsibility of the government is to ensure the welfare and collective good of the people. A government is not a mere agency to facilitate the availability of alcohol, tobacco or such addictive and harmful substances to which people easily get addicted. If a considerable number of people in a State want to commit despicable crimes like foeticide or infanticide, it would be unthinkable for a government to allow the commissioning of such crimes, let alone assist or abet the acts.

If large numbers of Indians are getting accustomed to consumption of alcohol, it is because of the easy availability of drinks and lack of awareness of the evils of alcohol. As such, the Central Government should take immediate steps to introduce a blanket ban on the manufacture and sale of alcohol throughout the country except for medical or industrial purposes. There should be a nationwide imposition of Prohibition and transgression of the relevant laws should be viewed seriously and entail stiff penalties. For this purpose, the subject matter should be brought under the legislative powers of the Central Government, which could at least partly alleviate the financial hardships faced by the State Governments owing to loss of revenue on account of closure of liquor shops, with health subsidies.

Some Suggested Measures  

It is incumbent on the government that has the welfare of the people as its goal, to spread the awareness of the evils of alcohol, especially among the students and youngsters of vulnerable age groups and enlighten them of the virtues of abstention. The awareness campaigns should enlist the support of artists, intellectuals, sportspersons, media, doctors, teachers, community elders, eminent persons and most importantly, individuals who had become victims of addiction to liquor and were weaned away from the addiction. Case studies of individuals harmed by addiction to alcohol should be undertaken and widely disseminated among the members of the public.

Corporate houses should take the responsibility of chipping in by joining the awareness campaigns and encourage their staff to abstain from alcohol. The Ministry of Health should organize, with the active participation of corporate houses, periodical health check-ups for the personnel of the government and private services who are in the habit of drinking with the idea of weaning them away from alcohol. A similar nationwide exercise should be carried out for the benefit of the people at large.

Quality education, awareness campaigns highlighting the evils of drinking and periodical health check-ups complemented by timely medical treatment would, over a period of time, result in the fructifying of a climate of temperance for the overall good and welfare of the people.

By Sunil Gupta

(The author is a Political Commentator & Chartered Accountant.)

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