Tuesday, September 09, 2014

To Drink or Not to Drink

The liquor prohibition imposed in Kerala has sparked an animated debate across the state. Some Malayalis weigh in on the issue

By Shevlin Sebastian

Brigadier NV Nair (Retd.) went for his usual walk, at 6.30 a.m., along the service road near Hotel Wyte Fort at Kochi. All of a sudden it started raining. Nair took shelter in front of a toddy shop which was shut. There was a man standing there. After five minutes, the shop opened. Nair watched the man enter the shop. He was served with two bottles of toddy.

This is the state of alcoholism in Kerala,” he says. “Instead of morning tea, some people want liquor, although he appeared fine to me. But maybe his body demanded it.”

Senior airline professional Patrick Xavier has a relative who runs a bar. Every morning, workers will come and knock at the door. They want to drink before they go to work. Most of the workers drink after work, also. “So, they are unable to give much to their family,” says Patrick. “As a result, the women are forced to do menial work.”

However, the desire for a drink has been persistent, despite prohibitions in India during the past. A retired senior Naval officer recalled that when he was a young Lieutenant on the then aircraft carrier, Vikrant, there was a reception for the elite in Chennai. The time given was 19.30. “Believe me, between 19.27 and 19.32, nearly every one, of the 150 guests that were invited, came on board,” says the officer. “I turned to my captain, and said, ‘Sir, the people are punctual.’”

He said, “Young man, they are not punctual, just thirsty.”

Tamil Nadu, along with Bombay, had prohibition, in the 1950s and 60s. Unfortunately, whenever Prohibition has been imposed, it has not worked.  

Many nations have tried this, including the United States,” says IT professional Manoj Kumar. “But what happened was that a lot of people became millionaires because of bootlegging. Today, thanks to the liquor ban in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka are laughing because they are going to make a killing. Earlier, Kerala and Pallakad made money because of the Prohibition in Tamil Nadu.”

Patrick Xavier feels that, despite the social problems caused by drinking, Prohibition is an infringement of personal rights. “I should be allowed to go to a bar,” he says. “A state cannot control that. If you are not able to serve liquor in hotels and restaurants, then you will not be able to get tourists to come to Kerala. There are many who like to have a good time and liquor is one of the ways.”

Senior professional Nirmala Lilly, who has more than two decades of experience in the hospitality industry, agrees. "The maximum revenue comes from banquets, where drinks are served, cocktail dinners, and conferences," she says. "For foreigners beer is like mineral water.On the one hand, the government is promoting the tourism industry and on the other, they are causing harm in terms of huge losses for private hotel owners, as well as loss of jobs.”

And she is worried about the negative impact among the 1500 national and international travel agents who will be coming to Kochi to attend the Kerala Travel Mart (September 18-20). 

The future looks grim. “Without the tourism industry, where is the revenue going to come from?” says Patrick. “Taxes will be levied on each and every item that you will buy, because the state needs money for governance. The government has to do a re-think. One suggestion is that liquor could be served from three-star hotels upwards. Only then can the state survive. If you go to places like Goa, you can see numerous small restaurants where liquor is served.”

In the absence of alcohol, people will look for alternatives. “In Mizoram, where alcohol was banned, people went for alternatives like having [cough syrup] Benadryl,” says the Kochi-based professional, Vinu Thomas, who grew up in a town on the border between Assam and Mizoram. “On the Bangladesh border, truck loads of Benadryl were unloaded, because liquor was banned in that area. Then there is Dendrite adhesive. The people burned it because the smell is an intoxicant. Most people remained drunk in Mizoram because of the ban.” 

Some women in Kerala are unhappy about the ban, but for different reasons. “A friend recounted a conversation between two women,” says senior lawyer George Tharakan. “One woman said, 'My husband, who was never at home before 10 p.m., was there at the doorstep at 7.30 p.m. Once he came in, he immediately took the remote and sat in front of the TV, watching the news. And I missed all those serials that would fill up my evenings. The next day I had to call Sushila and ask her about what happened on the shows.” 

Clearly, the ban has provoked animated discussions all over the state. But these are early days. Nobody knows about the long-impact of such a hasty decision. Tragically, the repercussions have begun. KK Lal, 45, an assistant manager at a non-functioning bar in Manjeri, has committed suicide because of financial worries.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

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