NEW YORK:Jisne pee nahin whisky, kismat phoot gayi uski — Amitabh Bachchan in Sharaabi, released 1984.
31 years later, that’s a fairly accurate picture of how the average Indian gets hammered, says a sweeping 82 page WHO report on global alcohol usage.
9 in 10 Indians knock back whisky, rum, vodka —- anything that’s not beer and wine. The local stuff - hooch and its many deadly cousins are not included in this data set.
After fighting and winning a five phase election - with the Opposition campaign headlined by India’s prime minister in a state of more than 100 million people, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s first big announcement of no booze has kicked in. Bihar on Sunday also banned the sale of toddy in public places after reports that locals have turned to toddy shops.
Non resident Biharis are positive this will continue to drive poorer folks to more deadly potions and roll out a new gravy train for Bihar’s police in the name of enforcement.
Jharkhand, Maharashtra and opposition parties in Tamil Nadu have also joined the prohibition clamour, raising a toast to “hero” Nitish Kumar.
Gujarat, which Modi ruled before he became prime minister, is nominally dry since 1950.
“You planning to come? I can offer you enough booze to soak yourself,” says Preeti Das, Gujarat’s only woman stand-up comedian. Das lives in the heart of Ahmedabad.
Outright prohibition has a poor record, Gujarat’s hooch mafia is flourishing, people continue to die from bad moonshine.
What do Biharis in America say?
In a final swipe against Modi before the final phase of voting in Bihar, Nitish Kumar called upon Biharis to vote for one of them rather than a Bahari (outsider), referring to Modi.
What about Biharis in America, part of the diaspora that increasingly underwrites Indian politicians’ veneer abroad?
Bhawesh Choudhary, chief of the Bihar and Jharkhand Association of North America, populalrly called BAJANA, came to New York from Patna 20 years ago, he will vote for the next American president and continues “to have strong links back home”.
“Acceptance” and “image” in social circles dominated by America’s immigration boom takes centrestage here when he “drinks”.
“We conduct ourselves very nicely here. What people think of you is important. We can’t do what we may have done in Patna” says Choudhary.
Anil Mishra, a financial risk manager with Deutshe Bank, also Bihari and BAJANA member, is more folksy: “Yahaan daroo peekar naale mein girte hue kisi ko nahin dekha. (Unlike in Bihar, I’ve never seen anyone in Europe or America sloshed and tumbling into a wayside drain.”
“A liquor ban won’t work,” says Mishra, a Jamshedpur-bred engineer.
“When I go back to Bihar and I don’t find liquor, I’ll drive to Jamshedpur. Tying liquor consumption to driving will work, bans have never worked,” says Mishra, a “social drinker” during his longish stint in Europe and America.
Even Biharis in Bangalore agree: "They had to ban something to avoid civil war, so they banned liquor instead of the real killer Khaini -- local tobacco," says Manish Jaiswal, who has carved out a new life in this southern city.
In America, a Driving Under the Influence (DUI) ticket is the first in a series of blows, which usually ends up in higher insurance premiums, and depending on the state laws, jail terms too.
America’s drink driving laws across its 50 states are mirrored in both how liquor stores are stocked and the WHO data: 5 in 10 Americans drink beer and only 3 in 10 go for hard liquor.
America quaffs less hard liquor and much more wine and beer. Californian wine, Pinot and Merlot are bestsellers; sweet wines rank lowest on the pecking order. Jack Daniels? What’s that?
Average Indian swigs 8 litres
Walk into any bar in India, after 7 pm. Small chance you’ll find anyone raising their glasses to a wet yesterday and dry tomorrow.
At 8.3 litres of alcohol per citizen per year, Kerala’s consumption is the highest in India. Most Muslims and many Hindus in Kerala are teetotal, as are most women. Kerala’s chief minister is bulldozing his way to close dozens of liquor shops each year; his aim: to make India’s hardest drinking state booze-free in a decade.
Does that make a difference? Inconvenience, yes. Deterrent, no.
Neighbouring Mahe is selling liquor at Union Territory rates, “guided tours” available.
India, China drinking more
Globally the world is drinking more as Indian states rush to shutter down liquor shops or claim they will.
“This trend is mainly driven by an increase consumption in China and India, which is linked to increased income in these countries,” says the WHO report’.
In China, the bulk of the “spirits” market is supplied by local stuff.
The “average” Indian drinker consumes 8 litres of alcohol per year;
9 in 10 women are “lifetime abstainers”.
If you weave these “abstainers” into the data analysis, it just means many are drinking far more than the average amount.
Indians are tipping the scales on the dangerous side in the number of years of life lost. On a scale of 1-5, the Indian average is 4, which is not adjusted to state averages which may be higher because of the number of teetotals.
India’s alcohol dependance is also higher than the South Asian average. What they’re getting tipsy on is hard liquor.
The taste for whisky, a hard glare at anyone suggesting a peg measure, bias for European brands and single malts all trace roots to the British empire.
In high-income countries only 8.5% of all alcohol consumed consists of unrecorded alcohol, whereas in low-income and lower middle income countries more than 40% of all alcohol consumed is unrecorded alcohol, which is commonly cheaper and accounts for more swigs per person.
The 8 litre figure for average Indian’s consumption does not factor in illicit liquor which accounts for nearly a quarter of the alcohol consumed globally.
Drink–driving countermeasures, not outright prohibition, are cost-effective strategies to reduce harmful use of alcohol and the burden of alcohol-attributable traffic crashes, “which are more likely when drivers have blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) above 0.04%.”
Younger Indians, better booze
India’s constitution aspires to prohibit alcohol for all but medicinal purposes.
Permits are required to import, manufacture, bottle, transport and sell alcohol—and even, in some places, to drink it.
Booze is also heavily taxed — import duty on bottled scotch is 150%, a rate that encourages graft. In some states, government oversees retail.
More than 19 million Indians reach the legal drinking age each year, they also have fatter wallets and ditch illicit moonshine for branded stuff.
Dry weddings are passe’. Now, a “single malt served” wedding ups image.
India is the world’s biggest whisky market by volume, if not by value, according to multiple business intelligence reports.
“Everyone is drinking better,” say India’s whisky bosses.
That means, hic, smashed.
(An earlier version of this story appeared in Firstpost, November 2015.)