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Kerala: Still Drinking To The Max

Kerala: Still Drinking To The Max

September 14, 2011

Kerala broke the eight-day liquor sales record yet again this Onam. How can alcohol consumption be curtailed?


Beverages Corporation records shows that during Onam the sale of liquor during the period from August 26 to 31 touched Rs 132 crore while during the same period last year it was Rs 110 crore.

-'Kerala in record-breaking 'spirits' this Onam', Rediff News


The liquor sales during this Onam festival season in Kerala have hit record high. The alcohol sales for the past six days touched a staggering record of Rs. 155.61 crore in Kerala. When compared to previous years the liquor sales have increased 17.61 percent this year.

-'Kerala liquor sales hit record high for Onam', Asianet India


The liquor sales during this Onam festival season in Kerala have hit record high. The alcohol sales for the past eight days touched a staggering record of Rs 236 crore in Kerala. When compared to previous year, the liquor sales have increased 24.93 percent this year.

-'Kerala liquor sales hit record high for Onam', Asianet India

This is Onam. This is Kerala.

Last year, I wrote about alcohol consumption in Kerala. At that time drinking was an integral part of life for many Malayali men, and nothing has changed since; indeed, the state consumes more alcohol than any other state in India. And it's during the ten-day Onam festival, which just ended on September 9 this year, that the drinking goes to greater heights – and greater, and greater, every year, as the above statistics show.

236 crore rupees in eight days. That's approximately US$50.7 million. This volume of liquor sales has an visible effect in the day-to-day physical world: the clamour and bustle outside government 'civil supplies' liquor shops up and down the state. Seeing those thronging crowds (and occasionally being part of them) is one of my most enduring experiences of Kerala, and while they're present year-round, they are extreme during Onam.

It isn't that price of liquor is rising dramatically, either. When I arrived in Kerala in 2008, a cheap half-bottle of rum cost around Rs 120; by the time I left a couple of months ago, it cost roughly the same amount. Malayalis are therefore simply buying more alcohol. And it's showing, in studies that have found substantial proportions of Kerala's road accidents, divorces, instances of spousal abuse and suicides are directly alcohol-related.

What is interesting, however, is that the cost of liquor is rising, and could even have led to a dry Onam this year. Kerala's major distilleries, which produce 90% of the state's liquor, complained to the recently elected Congress state government that the raw materials for manufacturing liquor have increased by as much as 150%. (In Kerala, the state completely controls the price and sale of liquor and make massive profits on the back of their monopoly.) Chief Minister Oommen Chandy responded by urging distilleries not to cease production – as they had threatened – and saying that the Congress government will address their problems in due time. One can imagine Chandy's shock at the potential losses: this announcement came on August 24, just before Onam was to begin.

Was that a missed opportunity? It's fair enough for Chandy and his government to baulk at missing out on those substantial Onam liquor profits, but I wonder if he couldn't have gone further than simply responding to the economic side of the issue. The chief causes of Kerala's extraordinary alcohol consumption are, to my mind, societal. There's a lack of education surrounding alcohol use, for example, and a deeply rooted masculine sense that any celebration demands drunkenness. (I'm putting aside for now the sizeable portion of drinkers who do so to escape debt worries and/or depression.) Chandy could have broadened his statement to include recognition of those causes and an intention to address them, just as the government would address the distilleries' concerns.

For me, the foundation of any attempt to curtail alcohol abuse has to start with education, and from a young age. In my childhood, we had a local constable come to our school - as at all New Zealand schools - and conduct a week long DARE (Drug and Alcohol Resistance Education) programme. It was realistic about the effects of alcohol and encouraged an assertive approach to consuming it, rather than passive or aggressive. Be in control of when and how you deal with drugs and alcohol, it said. You might say that such a programme would be useless in Kerala, given that many of the boys will be going home to a drunk father or older brother, but awareness has to start somewhere. DARE would sow the seeds of more responsible drinking. NZ's standard of alcohol consumption admittedly isn't the world's best, but DARE plants a seed that has to be wilfully ignored.

To my surprise, there is in fact a DARE school programme in Kerala, but there is little to find about it online except to say that it does apparently exist; I certainly never heard any mention of it in all my time in Kerala. (For those interested, this page on a school resources site created by Intel was all the school-level alcohol education I could find.) This is probably because it is run by an NGO seemingly limited in scope, the Alcohol and Drug Information Centre (ADIC); to be effective, a programme like DARE needs to be backed by government resources.

With that in mind, the two most important questions are as follows:

1) Whether or not it is in the government's interest to tackle alcohol abuse.

Given the amount of money it gets from the sale of alcohol – which, let's not forget, is increasing every year – there is no direct economic incentive for Chandy et al to break with the status quo and set about rectifying Kerala's obvious alcohol problem. The interest, then, has to be in matching the state's high human development indices (literacy, life expectancy, birth rate, infant mortality) with lower numbers in those damning statistics linked to alcohol use, such as road accidents, divorce, spousal abuse, crime and suicide.

Under the previous CPI(M) government, the answer to this question was a firm 'No'. Of course, the rewards of a 'Yes' response would have been long-term and public, the exact opposite of the short-term, decidedly individual gains that intoxicated many politicians.

Under the Congress government, this question remains unanswered.

2) Whether or not it is in the people's interest to buy and drink less alcohol.

I'm not a Malayali, so I can't answer this one. I therefore invite any readers from Kerala to comment on below with their thoughts on the issue of alcohol consumption in the state. 


  • Rema Gopalan
    Rema Gopalan
    20.03.12 05:11 PM
    I have observed the same reasons contributing to this alarming case in Kerala,though the points may vary in order. The fifth point as you mentioned i.e.,the vanishing values stands the first reason as of for me...
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    23.02.12 01:44 AM
    Hi Mr Pillai - yes, most definitely still reading. Would love to know what you think.
  • Gopukrishnan Pillai
    Gopukrishnan Pillai
    22.02.12 01:04 PM
    I've an opinion to add, but I would like to know if someone is still reading this page. So pls reply to this comment so that I know the thread is live.

  • Vinod
    19.11.11 08:17 AM
    You said it!In Kerala,the government runs the main show.If you look at the beverages shop after 5 pm in Kerala,one could see very responsible literate men patiently waiting in line to get their turn to buy their quota for the day.The vast majority sips this government booze everyday!
    Now the reasons that I feel contributing to the situation.
    1. Financial 'independence' for men where women folk also contribute to the family economy(which means relaxed audit at home)
    2. Pressure of high standard of living.
    3. Stress due to lack of desired jobs meeting the educational qualification one holds.
    4. Keralites lack of honor of labor
    5. Vanishing values and ethics in a nuclear family where accountability is limited before one's spouse only(the pangs of a transition from Joint family to nuclear family)
    I am only a layman and not a sociologist but my observations are based on my trips to Kerala over the years.
    16.09.11 11:49 PM
  • Sijith
    16.09.11 02:16 PM
    Nice article and comments.
    One thing all of you have missed is, In Kerala, the production and distribution is run by the state owned Beverages Corporation..that means every year you will have some numbers to publish. The money goes to state treasury. In other states, it is not that way. Mainly the private players holds the major share. I don't remember any states in India came up with some numbers (revenue)from the sales of alcohol. I live in Bangalore and every junction or signal you will see 5-6 vine shops. Don't know any one has some numbers showing how much was their revenue. So it would not make sense for me to tell Kerala has got first place in alcohol consumption.
    However, the raising irresponsible alcohol consumption in Kerala is really a concern.
  • Mathew Mathew
    Mathew Mathew
    15.09.11 06:31 AM
    I know three men (all in Kerala) who drink irresponsibly. They drink mainly because they have no one to answer to and have money to buy booze for themselves and for their cronies. All three are married with children and hail from "good' families.

    The Mallus in the US do not drink as much as their counterparts in Kerala because "drunkards don't get much respect" in the community.

    Drinking is a universal problem. In the United States, 17.6 million people--about l in every 12 adults--abuse alcohol or are alcohol dependent. In general, more men than women are alcohol dependent or have alcohol problems. (Source: NIAAA- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism)
  • Sourav Roy
    Sourav Roy
    15.09.11 12:27 AM
    Hydrocarbons have always affected Kerala. For good reasons or bad. Back in 70s and 80s, many young men from the state made a fortune due to the Gulf oil boom. Today Kerala is drowning. (yes, this beautiful strip of land is indeed drowning into the Arabian sea due to global warming, but my concern is more immediate in nature). The current youth of Kerala has drowned in yet another hydrocarbon- “Alcohol“.

    Not just Kerala, but Coorg, a part of Karnataka, is also fighting the same problem. Coorgies are the warrior clans of South India, and are known for serving the Indian army. The modern youth of both Kerala and Coorg is facing a common problem- unavailability of their father. In many cases, a child’s father is either working in the gulf or serving the Indian Army.

    As a result, the young men are drowning in alcohol and inviting slow death. They are in hospitals, ravaged with pancreatitis and liver diseases. In the peak of life, they are battling alcohol withdrawal syndromes in de-addiction centres. Not just slow death, these youngsters are also inviting fast death. 95 per cent of vehicular accidents of the region are due to drunken driving. Disheartening but true!

    The churches of Kerala and Coorg have woken up to this problem. They are doing their best to stop the downfall of the two regions we Indians boast of and feel proud about. Local and nationwide NGOs should join the cause. Leaders of the area must forget the differences and come up with practical solutions and regulations for the problem.
  • A Singh
    A Singh
    14.09.11 10:29 PM
    @Joseph - you raise some interesting points. I was shocked (as a punjabi Sikh!) when I learnt from the author's first piece that the highest level of alcohol dependence occurs in Kerala. This fact would surprise most punjabi NRIs who revel in their drinking abilities. They would almost take it as an insult to their manhood that they are not in pole position! But like you said it could be down to the manner of the drinking. While punjabi communities also experience incidents of domestic violence, and other social issues resulting from alcoholism, maybe they are more the exception than the rule.

    @Saishree - when I recently vacationed in Kerala, I asked a local how is it that Kerala, a progressive paradise populated with relatively more intelligent and literate citizens, suffers the highest levels of suicide and alcoholism. He responded that therein lies the problem. He pointed to the greater rate of industrialisation in other regions, particularly north India, than was encouraged by his socialist state government that focused more on education, equality of citizens, etc. The net result is a large highly educated populace but with less employment and commercial opportunities that are available in other states. Is this too simplistic, or even accurate?
  • Saishree
    14.09.11 10:00 PM
    I actually do not think that excessive alcohol consumption is a relatively new phenomenon in Kerala. (I know that the previous comment from Joseph says the exact opposite thing:) ).

    I have lived outside Kerala for a large part of my life. But even as a kid coming to Kerala on summer vacations, I couldnt help notice the way the people drink in this state. Its like you said "any celebration demands drunkenness". While the obvious idea is to celebrate, there is a sense of desperation to get drunk. While I was in college and immediately after, I could kind of identify with this kind of drinking - for a while. But then after the age of experimentation, and whole works and blah blah blah, as you grow older notice that you and others (a lot of non mallus) have turned mellow (as in you find a lot of other things you enjoy more than getting drunk). You come to enjoy social drinking and move on other things in life.

    But I have observed that the average 30+guy still drinks with the same level of desperation as the college going teenager. Surely there is something wrong about that?
    I am not really talking about moral, ethical or spiritual issues here. What worries me more is that ...this guy here is giving up on life and its possibilities (in a very broad context). As you grow older, you find a number of fun things to do, you discover various possibilities, and you do not use alcohol as the sole entertainment in your life. However, the average malayali does not seem to graduate to this level. I am not sure if its a lack of imagination, or a lack of will, but what's disappointing is that it just seems to hamper the potential of the otherwise intelligent and sane malayali. And that really is a shame.

    P.S - I just had this argument with my boyfriend a few days back where he was talking about some friends drinking early morning for every celebration. I didnt buy his argument that if they didnt drink, what else could they do in small town Kerala. I only said that they should find something, but a lack of imagination is no excuse for guzzling up.
  • Joseph James
    Joseph James
    14.09.11 08:22 PM
    The excessive alcoholic cosumption in Kerala is a relatively recent phenomenon. And I wonder if prohibition is going to have the desired effect. It will only lead to a spurt in the brewing of illicit liquor. Is the lack of awareness of the hazards of drinking the main cause of Mallu's fondness for the bottle? I doubt it. Kerala has a higher level of health awareness than any other state in India? Domestic tourists coming to Kerala are really surprised that every restaurant in Kerala offers boiled water to its customers? If the mallus are so particular about the water they drink, can they be ignorant of the dangers of drinking alcohol. True, Kerala schools, as far as I know, do not have programme equivalent to DARE. But every religious group, through whatever platform is available to it, preaches ad nauseam on the evils of drinking. In fact, drinking is an anathema to Islam whose followers constitute more than a third of Kerala's population? So, where lies the actual cause? It calls for a serious study.
    Having been away from the state for pretty long, I really do not know what has gone wrong with our people. It might be a symptom of spirtual and moral bankruptcy. Or maybe it is a consequence of the insecurities arising out of the total collapse of the joint-family system in the state. Whatever be the cause, there is something obscene about the way the mallus drink. Goans an Punjabis probably drink more than Keralites. But they know how to hold a drink. For them, it is way of celebrating and socialising.Not so for the Malayalis. There is a sense of desperation about the Mallu drinking. It is an end in itself.
    Drinking is the external manifestation of a deeper malaise affecting the Kerala society. No point in treating a symptom.
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    14.09.11 04:42 PM
    You're absolutely right - decimal point ended up in the wrong place. That value has been corrected; thank you for pointing it out.
  • Rohin
    14.09.11 10:15 AM
    Um, Rs.236 crore isn't US$507 million. It's between $51-52 million.

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