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.
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.
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.
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.