The suggestion by a division bench of the Kerala High Court on Thursday that the government should consider closing down bars during the day is a telling commentary on the state’s endemic addiction to booze, and a sign of the increasing exasperation that has long since gripped its saner souls.
The court said that drinking should be compliant with the ways of a civilised society and it is anybody’s guess how many people, including students, get drunk during the day.
The court’s observations, made during the hearing of a case on the working hours of bar hotels, is not binding on the state; but the bench would like the government to consider the suggestions in the interests of public good.
Translated into a straightforward question, the court’s comments were simple: “Why drink like this during working hours?” or “Why do you need a bar during the day?” And that is exactly how a Malayalam newspaper headlined it on its front-page.
That is the human development marvel, the “fully” literate and communist Kerala, and its “uncivilised” drinking habits for you.
Drinking, irrespective of the time of the day, is part of the pop-lore and is as celebrated as its development indicators. Its maternal mortality, infant mortality and literacy rates might rival that of western Europe; but its drinking habits are better compared with countries such as Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Nepal.
The state is unabashed in celebrating booze and its government liquor monopoly, the Kerala State Beverages Corporation, converts all of that into liquid cash to fund about 40% of the state’s annual budget.
There are zillions of examples on how alcohol is part of the mainstream in Kerala, and how it is perfectly normal to drink. No matter the time of the day.
Perhaps the most fitting example is the presence of a permanently drunken-character in the state’s stand up comedy shows, locally known as mimicry. Although one imaginative comedian started it a few years ago, his clones have mushroomed across the state. Every mimicry group now inevitably has somebody portraying a drunkard, who buys his booze from the Beverages Corporation. Even his dress-code is standardised.
The drunken nonsense is also the signature piece of the stage-shows of a leading comedian in Malayalam films. There are film makers, poets, artists, writers and even thugs who make a virtue of their inebriation. Not surprisingly, they also have a huge following of youth, mostly unemployed, who under the influence of alcohol, philosophise on the purposelessness of life, and indulge in dark art and violence.
A film maker who fell to his death from a building while drunk, and a drunken gypsy-poet who was found dead on the road side in the state capital, continue to be cult figures in the state. There is even a Forum for Better Spirit led by a film actor NL Balakrishnan, who advocates for better quality liquor.
The Beverages Corporation earns about Rs 7,800 crores annually, and its revenue is growing every year, recording massive spikes in sales during festival seasons, both Christmas and Onam. This Onam season, the Corporation reportedly earned Rs 200 crores.
The Beverages Corporation, which is part of the state’s booze legend now, was set up in 1984 based on the recommendations of a judicial commission. Curiously, the commission’s suggestions to “nationlise” liquor trade were indeed forward-looking in terms of the centrality of the sector for the state’s economy: provide genuine liquor at reasonable price through government agencies, “exploitation” through increased taxation, ending exploitation by middleman and ensuring consumer protection.
Although aided by its monopoly, the Beverages Corporation is perhaps the most respected and used brand in Kerala, which incidentally commands absolute discipline in front of its 338 outlets across the state. On an average, each district has 24 government outlets selling booze. Its spread is so pervasive that the Corporation also has 22 warehouses for its 14 districts – more than one for each district – so that its shops never run out of stock.
Interestingly, the court has suggested closure of only the bars and not the main culprit, namely the liquor shops of the Beverages Corporation. Perhaps what was overlooked was that the 600 plus bars account for only a fraction of daytime drinking, and the premium of the bars makes it expensive for most of the customers. The large number of people who queue up in front of the liquor shops during the day, day after day, rain or shine, certainly corroborates this assumption.
If the courts are genuinely interested in reducing liquor consumption, and its related ills, including bad health and crime, it should ask the government to restrict the number of liquor shops and their working hours.
But will it work? It might lead to the return of spurious liquor, hooch tragedies and liquor-mafia that politicians and men in uniform can profit from. With the highest per capita consumption of alcohol in the country, and about a third of the population hooked to alcohol, how does one change habits?
Technically, the state needs to take alcohol consumption out of the mainstream, which means social re-engineering of one of the quirks of the Kerala model of development.
The government can only fake moral pain and helplessness. If the Malayalis shun this habit, it will be bankrupt.