Deflating the balloon of alco-phobia in locked-down India

Sumanta Banerjee

The other day, I came across a rather interesting news item. A BJP woman leader of Hyderabad Ms. Prasanna, while driving back home was blocked by a crowd queuing in front of a liquor shop. She got down from her car, and was shocked to discover among the crowd the migrant workers whom she had served food for 43 days by spending Rs.80,000. Expressing her sense of distress at the sight, she said - “…I was heartbroken and could not control my anger. How did they got money to purchase booze?” (Deccan Chronicle, May 9, 2020).

Ms. Prasanna’s sentiments are shared not only by philanthropists like her, but also by large segments of our society, ranging from committed prohibitionists and religious leaders to women’s rights activists, medical experts and politicians of various hues, who have taken umbrage at the recent opening of liquor shops in certain areas.  Some among them have raised objections from purely mundane quotidian fears, while others on the ground of what they consider perennial moral values. All of them look alarmingly at what they envisage as an apocalyptic future of a society about to be deluged by alcohol. Those who are more concerned about the mundane material problems claim that consumption of alcohol results in increasing number of deaths due to cirrhosis of liver, traffic accidents by drunken drivers, and bashing up of wives by drunken husbands among many other similar ills in our daily existence. Those who raise  ethical questions argue that alcohol consumption leads to moral turpitude that violates the traditionally set norms of social behaviour,  and they usually rest their arguments on orthodox religious diktats,   Gandhi’s insistence on prohibition, and the belief that alcohol is an alien beverage introduced in India by the British rulers.

Both the assumptions - whether made by the pragmatist materialists  or the champions of ethical behaviour - are found to be fallacious, as evident from the hard facts and statistical data collected from the ground roots. These reports prove that their anxieties are misplaced, and appear to be based on insidious misinformation that exaggerates the ill-effects of drinking, and are reinforced by socio-religious prejudices that equate drinking with sin.    

Reports from the ground       
Let us first get down to the basic data which should address some of the concerns raised by the materialists. Out of a population of 135.26 crore in India, only 16 crores consume alcohol (Re: India Today, February 18, 2019). The number of deaths due to alcohol consumption is 2.6 lakhs every year (WHO report, September 23, 2018). According to WHO statistics, the average number of total annual deaths in India stands at 9 million plus. Researches conducted by Indian medical teams have found out that the majority of these fatalities are caused by heart diseases, peri-natal conditions, chronic respiratory ailments, diarrhoea, cancer, cardiac or cerebral strokes and tuberculosis. Alcohol related factors occupy the bottom of the list. (Re: Indian Council of Medical Research findings carried by Lancet Global Health, 2019). As is well established from our own familiar and familial experiences, a large number of patients suffering from  cirrhosis of liver (an ailment usually blamed on alcohol consumption)   had never touched alcohol. Thus, by all accounts, alcohol-related deaths constitute only a miniscule of total fatalities in India. Most of  these deaths  are caused by prevailing socio-economic factors like lack of  basic nutrition and housing amenities, and the state’s failure to provide adequate and easily accessible health care facilities to prevent the outbreak of diseases and cure the  patients. 

Surely, this is not to dismiss the risks of unbridled and hazardous drinking habits among sections of our people. But let us locate such habits in the larger perspective of the  death  rate  in  India,   and  not  exaggerate  them  beyond  proportions. While  advising the tipplers  to  give up  drinking and be  sober, the materialists and  the  proponents  of  ethical  norms  themselves  need  to  become   sober  when  they  make  assessments, instead of being drunk with misinformation and social prejudices.

Drunk driving - by truck drivers and private car drivers     
One  such  example  of  how misinformation  distorts  their  attitudes is  the  much touted claim that drunk driving is the main cause of traffic accidents and alcohol-related  fatalities. We should  ..look at the  available data again. According  to a  report  by  the  Road  Transport  Ministry in 2018, a  little  over 1.51  lakh  people  died in road accidents. Speeding  was  the  biggest reason, accounting for 64.4%,  followed by driving  on  the wrong side of the  road. Drunk driving caused only one-third of all traffic accidents.  (Re: Times of India, March 19, 2020). The  next question that arises from this is - how  many of these alcohol-driven  accidents were caused by public transport likehighway  trucks (run by  drivers  employed by  their  owners) on the one hand, and  private motor cars driven by their owners on the other ? A  recent survey of  truck drivers reveals that of the main causes for crashes  on  national and state highways, 41.77% were over-speeding (out of the  compulsion  by  the drivers to deliver goods on time, as  demanded  by their employers), 38.7% because of fatigue and sleepiness (brought about by over working), and 30.3% due to consumption of alcohol and drugs like  bhang, charas, etc.  (Re: Status of Truck Drivers in India, February, 2020. National  Study conducted for Save LIFE Foundation by Marketing and Development Research Association). 

Next to truck drivers are the private car motorists, who have been hauled up for drunk driving. An average of 9 lakh people get arrested for DWI - the official acronym for ‘driving while drinking’.  (Re: Times of India, March19, 2020). Unlike the truck drivers who work under pressures from their employers, the private car owners are on their own and drive at their pleasure. In India, they constitute a minority - only 22 out of a thousand citizens. But the rate of accidents caused by their drunken driving is disproportionately higher considering their miniscule number. Every now and then we read reports of brats of rich politicians or VIPs, film stars or socialites on their way back home from cocktail parties at midnight, running over sleeping pavement dwellers, or knocking down pedestrians and scooter drivers. The lockdown - touted by its cheer leaders as an effective deterrent against drinking - has made no difference to these privileged sections of our society. To take some recent instances of their breaching the law during the lockdown - on April 30 in Kolkata, three businessmen were found drunk while driving an Audi car with CC (Consular Corps) number plate. They were returning from a party (Hindustan Times, May 1, 2020). Soon after, in the first week of May, news came from Hyderabad reporting three accidents caused by drunk driving by private car owners.   

Is  there  then any class  bias sneaking behind the publicity that is given to drunk driving among the under privileged class of truck drivers, while underplaying the same habit prevalent among the  upper  and  middle  class  privileged car- owners? A similar bias against the labouring  poor is  evident  in  the  social  propaganda(accepted by  large  sections  of  the  public) that alcohol  consumption  leads  to domestic violence in  their homes. Such a propaganda conveniently ignores  the fact that domestic violence is common in  Indian  educated  middle and  upper class homes also - even  without  alcoholic stimulus. There are numerous instances of husbands and female members  of  their  households  harassing, and even killing  brides  because  of   inadequate  dowry.  

Beyond the urban alco-polis - the rural Adivasis and Dalits  
We have been discussing till now the issue of alcohol consumption  in Indian  metropolitan  cities - among  manual labourers,  factory  workers  and  upper  class  citizens.  But  there  is  a  wide  segment of alcohol  consumers  who  live  beyond  this  urban  environment.  Most of them are farmers, agricultural labourers and artisans. Among them there are Dalits and adivasis, the former comprising about 16.6 % and the latter 8.6% of our population. In the   rural environs where they live and work, they brew their own variety of alcohol, varying from region to region - `arrack’ made from palm juice, `hadiya’ from rice, `mohua’ from flowers, `feni’ from cashew nuts. They are different - both in taste and after effects - from the IMFL (Indian Manufactured Foreign Liquor) branded  bottles  of  whisky, rum, brandy, gin and other hard drinks that serve the urban consumers.   

In  the  present drive  against  drinking  in  the  name of fighting CONVID-19, these indigenous drinks are also being tarred by the same brush of prohibition and branded  as  poisonous  and sinful. As it is, the  Adivasis are  being  deprived of  their  natural resources  by  industrial predators, who  under the  benevolent  patronage of the Indian state, are  seizing their forests and lands to  set up  mining  enterprises and factories.  Now, one of their popular   sources  of community entertainment is also being choked by the  administrators and the  fanatic  cheerleaders of prohibition. This is nothing new. A similar campaign was launched several decades ago by Gandhians in the tribal area in pre-Independence India. Verrier Elwin, the English anthropologist who started his career as an ardent devotee of Gandhi’s and went to tribal villages in central India to live  there, found to  his dismay  that Gandhi’s message  of  prohibition  had  no  takers among  the tribals. He discovered that the alcohol brewed by the tribals in their homes, was an “essential item of their diet.”  He felt that the introduction of prohibition would “rob them of a much-needed  tonic and deprive  their festivals and marriages  of  their  former  gaiety  and  even  their funerals of some sort of comfort.”  This experience led   him to part ways  with  Gandhi, as he was to explain later in his autobiography: “Gandhi’s emphatic views on Prohibition (which I considered damaging to the tribes)…..further separated me from him.”(The Tribal World of Verrier Elwin. An Autobiography. 1964).

Prohibition  in  any  case  has  never  worked - whether in the US or Europe in the past, or in  India’s  Mumbai under the regime of Morarji Desai, or Bihar today ruled by Nitish Kumar. Instead of curbing drinking, it has led to the proliferation of illicit distilleries and more deaths from the consumption of poisonous liquor. 

The ill-informed basis of moralistic objection to alcohol consumption
A  large  part  of  the  campaign against alcohol consumption in  modern  India  has  been  triggered by moral objections based on religious diktats, and reinforced by Gandhian  politics which identified drinking with  Western culture(that led to the  picketing  of wine  shops  during  the Swadeshi  movement).  But  neither  the    religious  objection  to alcohol consumption  propagated by orthodox  preachers in Hindu society, nor the  Gandhian campaign for prohibition, can  derive  any  justification  from  the  ancient  religious  epics like  Ramayana   and  Mahabharata,  which the Hindus hold as sacred. Both the  epics  describe alcohol consumption  as a part of the  social  daily  life  of  the  citizens  of  Ayodhya and the Pandavas  and  Kauravas.  To  refer  to  the  life-style  of  Rama - the mytho-political hero of  the modern  Hindutva  brigade - we  find  this  delightful  description  of  his  manners  in the  Valmiki-  composed  Ramayana: “he (Rama) took Sita by the hand, made her sit  and drink the  wine  distilled  in  the  province  of  Mira.  And  in  no  time,  the  servants  brought  for him well-cooked meat and various fruits. Being inebriated, the beautiful Apsaras, well-skilled in the art of singing and dancing, began  to dance before Rama.” (Uttarakhand 7,  Sarga 42, Verses 18-23).

The  Mahabharata,  in  one  of  its  chapters, comes out with an equally delightful  account  given by the divine messenger Sanjaya who describes the frolics of Krishna,  Arjuna,  Draupadi  and  Satyabhama  “exhilarating  themselves  with  Bassia  wine..”(Udyog  Parva 5, section 59, verses 2-5). Bassia is traced  to  what in  modern  scientific  investigation  is  termed  as  `Madhuca  longifolia’ - a tropical tree found in central and north Indian plains and forests, which produces`mohua flowers’ from which indigenous liquor is  made. 

The  arguments  of  the  puritan  teetotaller - whether  from  the  pragmatic  camp  or  the  moralist shelter - thus do not carry any weight in view of the hard facts that  are  available  from  both  the  data  of  today  and  the  religio-historical  records of the past. Should we not then  think of adjusting  our  socio-political  system  to  the  popular custom  of  drinking  -  without of  course  allowing  it  to drift into  a  self-destructive direction? Instead of branding every drinker as a criminal-cum- sinner,  should  we  not  make  a  distinction  between hazardous drinking (a level  of  alcohol  consumption  which  can  prove  injurious   for  the  user,  and  the  impact  of  whose  behaviour  can  be  harmful for  society) on the  one  hand,  and  responsible   drinking  on  the  other, that helps the drinker  to  relax  in  privacy,  and  unwind  in  company  by  sharing  pleasantries,  as  also  stimulates  creative  minds  to  produce  art and literature  ? 

Promotion of ‘Responsible Drinking’
The term ‘responsible drinking’ may sound paradoxical - a contradiction  in  terms - since drinking had always been mistakenly associated  with  irresponsibility  in  the  minds  of  large  sections  of  the  public,  thanks  to  the  widely-publicized misbehaviour of the minority  of  black sheep  among the consumers of alcohol. Yet, there is a case for ‘responsible drinking’  - which curiously enough is being advocated, of all agencies, by the alcohol manufacturing industry!

In order to promote its image of corporate social responsibility, it has funded an NGO called the International Alliance for Responsible Drinking (IARD), which is committed to addressing public health issues emanating from `harmful drinking’. As opposed to `harmful drinking,’ the IARD promotes`responsible drinking’ which it defines  as “…the  enjoyment of alcohol drinks by adults  who choose to drink  in a manner that does not harm others…”  

I think this is a fairly objective global definition of ‘responsible drinking’ which  can  be extended to cover the personal  and collective habits of drinking that  are  prevalent  in  Indian  society. In  tune  with  this  spirit of the IARD definition, the International Spirits and Wines  Association of India (a representative  body  of  multinational  alcoholic  beverage companies), in a petition  addressed to the Tamil Nadu government on January 23, 2020, urged  it to set  up more licensed  drinking places  to  promote `responsible  drinking’,  and  curb  the  menace of  alcohol smuggling  and  sale  of  spurious  and  illegal  alcohol.    
I am aware of the tricky ground that I am treading upon.  It is a ground enmeshed in a demand and supply economy - the public demand for alcohol and its  supply by the industry.  The latter, out of its own self-interest wants the legalization of drinking, even if it is restricted, instead of the reign of prohibition under which it would otherwise lose its  monopoly over  manufacturing  of liquor, and give way to its  rivals in the spurious liquor industry.

In  such  a  situation - where the self-interest driven corporate sector promotes the concept of `responsible  drinking,’ which allows healthy drinking on the one hand, while  the  self-denial  driven  puritan teetotallers on the other hand impose the  diktat of abstinence that drives alcohol consumption into the criminal  underground of poisonous liquor - which is the option that the Indian citizen should choose?      

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May 21, 2020

Sumanta Banerjee

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