I understood the significance of this issue in my padayatra of about 200 villages in the Rewari district of Haryana in July 2018. Without an exception, women in every single village listed increasing liquor consumption as the number one problem. They were desperate for any solution. Panchayats are no good, they said, as they get a commission in liquor sale (yes, there is a formal payment per bottle). They wanted, and tried, breaking down or burning of liquor vends, but to no avail. One woman took me aside and proposed poisoning of liquor to get rid of this menace once and for all!
Metropolitan intellectuals and policymakers have no idea of the nature of this problem. They continue to think of drinking through the prism of their own elite social practice. They don’t realise that a peg or two in an upper-class drawing room is a very different thing from a-quarter-a-day for a family that earns barely Rs 300 daily. They think that any plea for liquor control is moralising. True, often Gandhian and religious prohibitionists do make drinking into a moral issue, which it is not. In our country, alcohol
is a growing health hazard, economic problem and a social menace. Sadly, the denial by our opinion
makers fits perfectly into the vested interest of the liquor lobby and their nexus with politicians to ensure that this menace grows undetected and unresponded to.
This year, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment published a major report, ‘Magnitude of Substance Use in India’, based on a massive sample survey across India. Add to these findings the WHO’s latest data on alcohol
use in India from its Global Burden of Disease Study and Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health to understand the nature and extent of this problem.
First, the extent of liquor consumption is higher than we imagine: about 33 per cent of adult males (but less than 2 per cent of adult women) consume liquor. The proportion of male drinkers is above 50 per cent in states like Chhattisgarh, Tripura, Punjab, Arunachal Pradesh, Goa and Uttar Pradesh. About 25 lakh children in age group 10-17 also drink. Second, drinking in India means ‘hard drinks’ or spirits (which comprises 92 per cent of total alcohol consumption, compared to 44 per cent global average) over wine or beer. This increases health hazards. Third, the amount of alcohol consumed by every drinker is 18.3 litre per year on an average, much higher than the global average. That works out to about 50 millilitres of pure alcohol, or five pegs, every day. The proportion of drinkers who engage in heavy drinking is 55 per cent in India, again higher than the world average. Fourth, nearly one-third of drinkers, a total of 5.7 crore people, are either dependent on or harmed by alcohol use. They need help, but only 3 per cent of them ever get medical or psychological help needed. Finally, there is a direct and measurable impact on health. At least 2.6 lakh deaths every year can be directly attributed to liver disease, or cancer or accidents caused by drinking.
Besides health, drinking has serious socio-economic consequences, especially for the poor. An average rural family spends about 2.5 per cent of its income on intoxicants, which may be one-eighth of its disposable income once the basic necessities are paid for. An addict could be spending anything between one-fifth to one-half of the total family income on his own drinking. In social terms, the brunt of drinking is borne by women. Wife and child beating, social violence, sexual abuse, family discord and break-up, and child neglect are some of the most obvious results of drinking. No wonder, most women hate drinking. By now it is an established fact that for every litre of liquor, the poor suffer more in terms of health and social consequences than the affluent.
Given the seriousness of the problem, it is nothing short of a scandal that liquor control policy does not figure on India’s national agenda. It is not hard to imagine what such a policy might be like. Total prohibition is unlikely to figure there because it has proven counter-productive far too often. While it does bring drinking seriously down, it tends to encourage smuggling, liquor mafia and spurious liquor.
What we need is a national plan for gradual reduction and control of alcohol use. This would involve, first of all, reduction in the dependence of state governments on liquor revenues. It would allow the state governments to stop aggressively promoting liquor. Second, the existing rules and laws regulating the sale and retail of liquor, the location of shops, opening timings and surrogate advertising must be enforced. Three, liquor license within a village or urban residential area should not be granted if 10 per cent of local community objects to it. Four, innovative social campaigns, such as Muktipath in Gadchiroli district in Maharashtra, should be supported to wean people, especially the youth, from the culture of drinking. Finally, a certain percentage, say about one-fifth of the government revenue earned from liquor sale, must be spent on alcohol and drug reduction and rehabilitation programmes. Can feminist intellectuals and women’s movement take a lead in developing a national consensus on this agenda?
By special arrangement with ThePrint
The author is the national president of Swaraj India. Views are personal.