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We drink to get drunk: India's booze problem

The two men accused of raping the five-year-old girl and shoving a bottle inside her, admitted that they had been drinking for hours and watching porn on a cell phone before they assaulted the little girl. The gang that took out that bus in Delhi in December had also been drinking at home. It’s facile to play spin the bottle and pin our rape epidemic on alcohol alone but India definitely has a drinking problem. And it’s growing.

The number of Indians who drink is still relatively low – about 32 percent. Of that less than 13 percent drink daily according to a new study from Nimhans. But what’s worrying is how we drink.

“Drink to intoxication seems to be the goal,” said Vivek Benegal, the principal investigator of the study. The standard international unit of alcohol is about 30 ml of spirit. In India, the study found, the usual drink poured at home is anywhere between 60 ml and 270 ml. We drink to get drunk –a country on the binge of an alcoholic breakdown.

Representative image. AFP.

Representative image. AFP.

Growing up, I remember the drunken brawls the sweepers next door would have with clockwork regularity. The men would get drunk and beat their wives. “What else is there to do?” shrugged our sweeper. “Look at the work we do. I am cleaning bathrooms or shoveling garbage all day.” Sometimes they would get too drunk and the wives would get to thrash them.

Now people from across class spectrum are following suit whether it’s downing drink after drink at the party at home (while the dinner grows cold in the kitchen) or partying hard with co-workers after work. The genteel tradition of one chhota peg everyday is fast being drowned out in a culture that worships excess in every sphere. We have mixed the American frathouse cool of getting hammered with the English miner’s serious drinking after a hard week’s work to create a dangerous cocktail.

“Almost 30 percent of people who go to a doctor have alcohol related conditions,” said Benegal. Another study, according to the Indian Alcohol Policy Alliance, estimates that 19 percent of hospital beds are for alcohol related patients said its executive director, Johnson J. Edayaranmula. He said a study that was conducted in prisons in Kerala showed 57 percent of those in prison came there because they committed a crime under the influence of alcohol. “The same study was replicated in many prisons across the country,” he noted. “The figures were almost the same.”

In post-liberalisation India getting smashed has never been easier. The average age for starting to drink is dipping ever lower. Once alcohol was both expensive and not freely available. A friend remembered, how she and her buddies would dip their cigarettes into the dregs of their alcohol in the belief that they could eke out an extra high from the fumes of the boozy cigarette. There’s no need for such desperate measures anymore. “Accessibility has increased,” said Edayaranmula. “You will not find a public institution like a hospital or a ration shop or a post office wherever you want but you will find that a liquor outlet is everywhere.”

What’s clear though is that prohibition doesn’t work either. The Nimhans study looked at Gujarat where prohibition has been in force since 1960. It says almost 17 percent of Gujarati men drink regularly. That is lower than the national average but it still impacts their families, not to mention creating a flourishing bootleg industry with smuggling rings, hooch poisoning tragedies and alcohol being diverted from defence canteens.

Anyway India is too lucrative a market for alcohol for anyone to seriously mull putting a cap on it. Alcohol companies promote every major cultural event in the country even if it’s through their club soda surrogates or airlines. Alcohol, not freedom of expression, was the burning issue of this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival when it turned out there were two dry days in the middle of the festival.

“Dry days are for plebs,” sneered one celebrity guest as he moved the party (for the favoured few) to his well-stocked hotel room. When the dry spell finally ended, there was literally a run on the bar. All alcohol finished within an hour or two.

The Sydney Morning Herald said in 2011 India was a $US25 billion market for booze. By 2015 it’s estimated to be a $US39 billion market. With only 30 percent or so of Indian men drinking, there’s ample room to grow. Given the size of India’s population, even a 1% rise can mean huge profits. “That 1% rise can be more than the population of some European countries,” said Edayaranmula. Add women, whose drinking patterns the Nimhans study is yet to analyse, to the mix and the market’s potential looks even more attractive.

A friend joked that at his regular pub the waiters wouldn’t give him more than four pegs saying they would get in trouble with his wife otherwise. “Once I had to actually call her before they would pour me more,” he chuckled. India does not need to become that kind of a nanny state yet but it needs to sober up to its drinking problem. We just cannot brush aside the spiking numbers of alcohol-fueled gang rapes and drunk driving traffic accidents anymore.

Anti-binge drinking campaigns abroad have usually focused on college students. India is ripe for one that focuses on everybody. WHO gave India a voluntary target of 10 percent reduction in alcohol consumption by 2025. Instead of sanctimonious sermons about the evils of alcohol or paeans to abstinence, looking at how we drink would be a good place to start.

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