12 September 2014

‘Only a thorn can remove a thorn.’ Recently, one event echoed the old Buddhist saying: the vexed move of Kerala to rid the state of the ills of the brew. Yes: the very state that figures with the highest per capita consumption of liquor in the country. The thorn of avarice first, when the period 2008-2012 saw a rise of 100% in liquor-based revenues for the state, through a nation-high rate of 120% of the product price. The thorn of drastic impatience, secondly, reflected in its government’s decision, a few weeks ago, to head for total prohibition. The facts of alcohol are known, and are very often tragic, but if a wrong tool is used while attempting to remove a thorn, it may create a more entrenched problem. In trying to dislodge a thorn using another thorn, one might just seat it deeper, far below the skin, even adding up the number of thorns inside one’s body. An enigma of ache, indeed! The cure might as well be eliminated… Thus, we must discuss: can governance, in our times, afford to believe in a ‘politics of the definitive’? In this case, can we resort to prohibition as the last, and everlasting recourse to moderate moderation? And what can administrators opt for in the interstices of partially brewed solutions? This week on Inter-actions, K.C. Rosakkutty confirms prohibition as a necessary step, but a first step, that must be followed by a real societal effort towards a change in habits and culture. Manoj Yesodharan recalls the special place of the commodity of alcohol in Kerala’s history, to reassert the need for regulations, but of a different kind.

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The Crisis of Withdrawal

K.C. Rosakkutty

The ‘Kerala Gift’

Manoj Yesodharan

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All debates on prohibition of liquor raise five major arguments: it is an inevitable part of the human civilisation from the very beginning, so it can never be banned; all the earlier attempts to ban liquor ended up being failures; a ban will lead to a flood of spurious liquor and smuggling of illicit spirit, and it will create a network of criminal mafia that will malign the entire society; a ban will cause huge loss for the exchequer; a large number of addicts will suffer from withdrawal symptoms and other related health problems.

Wherever drinking is mentioned in our ancient scriptures, it tells a story of its disastrous effects. That means, liquor was always a menace, throughout human history. The demands for a ban have an equally long history. But bans in earlier days cannot be compared with the present situation. Now, we have a number of advanced technologies – the SCRAM bracelets for continuous alcohol monitoring, GPS trackers, breath analysers, camera surveillance, etc. – and a large range of official machinery to monitor and tackle the situation. Revamping the wide network of Jagratha Samithis (the grassroots watchdog groups formed at village/ward level for the protection and well-being of women) could also easily detect and prevent the local presence, production or distribution of illicit liquor.

Grassroots groups can contribute
to the local control of alcohol consumption

Today, the government as well as society bear a huge burden in terms of medical and psychological treatment and rehabilitation of the alcohol-addicts in various stages of dependency. Many women, too, are undergoing similar treatments, due to the very same trauma, created by the addicts in their family. A large number of lives are being taken every year by alcohol in various incidents of accidents and crimes. This throws their families into great disasters. Alcohol is behind more than half of all violent crimes committed in our state. More than 80% rapes and 60% murders are committed under the influence of alcohol. Alcohol abuse is a major cause of nearly all cases of domestic abuse and broken families. It is one of the major reasons for the increasing number of divorces and family problems, largely affecting the future of thousands of children in Kerala. If we consider all these issues and the money spent for these from the state exchequer and the earnings of the families, we will definitely realise that the crocodile tears shed on the ‘huge loss from the state exchequer’ are meaningless.

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But on the short-term, indeed, a decline in tax income will occur, so we will have to mobilise other resources to make up for the loss. I believe the government is moving in this direction. And even though such expenses will naturally come down in the future, some immediate measures are to be taken to tackle the present crisis of withdrawal problems. We should provide adequate facilities to treat and rehabilitate alcoholics, in the coming days. We should open sufficient numbers of centres for de-addiction, counselling and rehabilitation in various parts of the state. Psychologists, doctors and counsellors should volunteer for this to make the prohibition successful, thus avoiding the criticisms that would probably emerge in the early days.

Being the state with the highest per capita consumption of alcohol in India, Kerala is suffering from a variety of other health issues. Many Keralites are facing a health problem or the other related to alcohol. Around eight lakh people in the State are suffering from liver cirrhosis, directly linked to alcohol consumption. A majority of the people dying of cardiac related problems in the state also have a history of alcohol abuse.

Another major threat is the increasing number of children taking to drinking. In the 1950s, the average age of people consuming liquor in the state was 28. It came down to 19 in the 1980s and 17 in the 1990s. Currently, people in the age group 10-12 are found using alcohol. This disastrous trend is really alarming. A total ban, which will curtail the easy availability of liquor, can certainly protect our young generation from alcoholism.

Alcohol also causes major inequities between social groups. It is a major block in the path of progress of the backward classes and the tribes. Their consumption brings them all the health issues, above and beyond the general problems they have been tackling with. The ban could be beneficiary to them too. The ban on arrack imposed in 1996 by the former government of AK Antony, had brought about a significant change in the tribal areas. I was a close witness of this progress.

The ban of arrack had a positive effect
on backward classes and tribes

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I believe that the subject of prohibition is somehow different in the case of Kerala, compared to other states in India. Here, the drinking habit is quite unique. In Kerala, drinking is not social, but antisocial… Most of the drinkers drink excessively, until they lose their complete sense! They consume huge quantities of liquor, spending more than what they earn. This naturally leads to the selling out of family properties and of the ornaments of the family members. The increasing per-capita consumption of alcohol and the disintegration of families are the most threatening challenges to social development in the state. These trends truly necessitate the withdrawal of alcohol from the market.

The Kerala Women’s Commission, which I chair, is of the strong opinion that this social evil must be eradicated in any manner. We strongly support the new liquor policy of the State Government and all their initiatives in this direction. The Commission will definitely provide all facilities possible to contribute to this great effort. And we hope that all the citizens will cooperate in this movement for a better future of our society.

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Alcohol has become an ubiquitous commodity, having an explicit relation to human social life and being a central object in the broader arena of political economy, irrespective of the political framework dominating society, whether it be a colonial, indigenous or post-colonial power structure. At one level, alcohol is a complex, universal commodity that is consumed everywhere and embedded in diverse cultures. But at another level, it is particularistic also, manifesting indigenous cultural expressions and dysfunctions. This dualism of the universal versus particular, at the heart of the object, necessitates a new approach that would explore the very structure and ontology of the object, alcohol itself, along with the cultural variations. This object has always been a contested site on which various discourses like medical, legal, religious, moral and technologies of self-regulation have been exercised. It is against this backdrop that the question of prohibition of alcohol in Kerala should be discussed.

Though Kerala tops in many statistics at present with the much touted Kerala Model, we also find a mix of contradictions, since the positive economic indicators are vitiated by negative social indicators such as the highest number of suicides and the highest rate of per capita alcohol consumption. The crowning negative indicator among the mix of statistics is inevitably falling on alcohol consumption, which has become a ‘male epidemic’ in Kerala of late.

Alcohol has played a key role
in the economy of the traditions of Kerala

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However, a cautious and objective enquiry evinces the working of certain vital cultural dimensions in this process. Surely, alcohol was never considered ritually important in the cultural space of Kerala, except in the offering of alcohol as libation to certain gods of subaltern origin. And there is hardly any festival that endorses the consumption of alcohol. But alcohol, indeed, turned out to be an important object in the consumption mania, which unlike other objects has created deep cracks and wedges in Kerala’s social fabric. Alcohol has emerged as a pivotal commodity of remuneration for securing certain ceremonial and supportive services that otherwise cannot be paid by money. This arbitrary practice has by now reached the level of standardised and accepted cultural norm in many parts of Kerala. The help offered by friends on the previous day of marriage functions or after death ceremonies is not remunerated by giving money, but by offering drink. The unavailability of labourers for jobs demanding relatively less effort and time, like cutting an unwanted branch of a tree, can be resolved by offering alcohol. At the same time, cutting the branches of trees along the street by the contract labourers employed by the electricity board can be further delayed for restoring the power supply by offering the same object. In this context of new sociality, alcohol emerges as the peculiar ‘Kerala Gift.’

The normalised and naturalised cultural practice of alcohol consumption in Kerala society viciously hides in its fold a plethora of social evils like familial violence, sexual harassments and child molestation. The abysmal decline of the age in which one is inducted into the consumption of alcohol is also alarming, indicated by its use even among school students. Further, this practice does not contribute to any sort of ritual or social solidarity unlike in certain Polynesian societies; on the contrary, in Kerala it often has an exactly opposite effect of breaking up such anthropological social unity. If alcohol brings in any sort of solidarity among the people who consume it, it is more of an ephemeral one.

This scenario inevitably demands certain regulatory measures on the availability of alcohol. However, the hasty decision to prohibit alcohol seems to be not a viable solution for this crisis. And in that sense, the prohibition of arrack cannot be cited as a successful example of prohibition. It can only be viewed as an internal change in the constitution of the object of alcohol subjected to various political and social conditions. The Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) that displaced arrack is not different in its composition from what it replaced, as it is clear from what is stated in the Kerala Excise Manual (Vol 2. 1972): “it must however be noted that most of the Indian made foreign spirits manufactured in India such as Brandy, Whisky are of the imitation type, viz, the rectified molasses spirit is diluted, artificial essences added and/or coloured or sweetened with caramel or syrup.” The prohibition of arrack certainly effected a positive change, but at a different level: it resulted in the modernisation of the excise department and it also brought change in the consumption pattern. The prohibition of arrack, which was portrayed as a denigrated object, created a conducive atmosphere for the dissolution of the social restrictions imposed on the consumption of alcohol. The social barriers of status position and age seem to be less relevant, as far as the new mode of consumption is concerned.

A response to the excess:
regulating the quality of the drinks

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What I would like to propose, in response to the prohibition, is rather to do away with this simulated version (the fallen copy) of alcohol and ensure the quality of the drink. More regulations can be imposed so that the government can limit the role of the private players in the field of alcohol trade, to ensure the avoidance of ‘imitation of the imitation’ otherwise known as ‘seconds’ in the lexicon of alcohol consumers. A controlled regulation of the object is what is required, whereas the attempt to prohibit alcohol all of a sudden can result in the strengthening of the inconspicuous parallel liquor economy. The recent government intervention and the controversies following it unravel the political bargaining power of the liquor barons in Kerala and their unholy nexus with the political leadership. The stringent restrictions on the role of the private players in the trade of alcohol can pose a challenge to this unholy nexus. In fact, this controversy on the prohibition of alcohol in Kerala reiterates the complexity of the object that ranges from the holy church wine to the cheap port rum.

K.C. Rosakkutty is the chairperson of the Kerala Women Commission. The commission performs as a statutory body, working on all matters relating to women’s problems. It inquires into the complaints of any unfair practice before recommending decisions to the government. The commission is also responsible to improve the social status of women in Kerala. The commission ensures to guarantee equal opportunity to women in the state public service and state public undertakings, in matters of promotions and recruitments.
Manoj Yesodharan is a Sutasoma Research Scholar in anthropology, at the Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities, Manipal University. He holds an M.A. in English Language and Literature from the University of Kerala, and a second M.A. in Humanities from the Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities, Manipal University. He is currently working on his Ph.D, entitled “Alcohol as Object: An Anthropological Study of Alcohol Consumption in Kerala”. He is also the co-convenor of the Deleuze Studies in Asia Conference 2015.

Disclaimers: The opinions expressed by the writers are their own. They do not represent their institutions’ view.
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Images and videos courtesy: BG Fons | IPS News | AU Ratheesh Kumar | Pixeldan | The Hindu

Voice courtesy: Samuel Buchoul

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