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THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, India, Jan 19 2011 (IPS) - The scene outside a temple in Kannur district in Kerala recently was something unusual in modern India. Sitting on one side of a balance scale hanging in front of the Kannadipara Muthappan Temple was a woman, and on the other side, a bucket of coconut wine.
The woman was offering the liquor to the gods as sign of devotion, but tradition dictates that the amount of wine had to be equal to her weight.
At the temple, the deities are said to demand liquor in order to be appeased. But it is not only the gods who love liquor, or take their wine seriously. According to the non-government organisation Alcohol and Drug Information Centre, Kerala state tops the country in annual consumption of hard liquor at eight litres per capita, followed by Punjab in the north with 7.9.
Kerala’s liquor consumption is about four times the national average, which the World Health Organisation (WHO) places at less than two litres. The world average is five. Keralites prefer rum or brandy, while the national “poison” is whiskey. But the countryside is also dotted with taverns selling local brews and arrack, which is akin to vodka in alcohol content.
Such a propensity for drink has had enormous social consequences, destroying careers and the social fabric of a people with an essentially middle-class outlook on life, in a state which ranks high among India’s 28 states in social development indicators.
These social consequences include alcohol abuse, alcohol-related diseases and deaths, wife-beating, and teenagers as young as 13 years old taking to the bottle.
Liquor sales rise around August and September during the annual “Onam” harvest festival. It is also a time for so-called “hooch tragedies” when spurious or adulterated brews claim many lives.
Last year’s festival was no different. Twenty-six people died after drinking toxic liquor in Malappuram district. Over the last three decades, as many as 250 people have died from these “hooch tragedies,” leaving behind families deprived of breadwinners.
Such tragedies have not diminished the demand for liquor. According to studies made by the Kerala State Beverages Corporation (KSBC), liquor sales almost doubled from Rs 2320 crore (530 million dollars) in the period 2004- 05, to Rs 5538. 90 crore (1.4 billion dollars) in 2009-2010.
A study conducted by the Indian Institute of Management revealed that KSBC is the only public sector undertaking in Kerala that consistently generates profits. “The figure of profit and the rise in sales volume have even crossed the expectations and projections of KSBC,” the study said.
The state benefits hugely from various liquor taxes. Financial analyst P. Gopakumar told IPS that “liquor boosts Kerala’s economy to a good high with nearly 35 percent of the tax revenues for its annual budget coming from booze.
“The major reason for the rise in consumption of liquor is the huge increase in incomes caused by flow of remittance from foreign countries,” he added.
Across India, a new prosperity is changing people’s attitude toward alcohol. Dr Muthu Krishnan, an independent sociologist in Chennai, said, “Rising incomes, changing demography, exposure to new culture, and growth in foreign tourists and loosening of state regulation are major factors behind the growing trend for consumption.”
But people in Kerala are drinking more than their counterparts anywhere else in the country. One reason could be the flood of booze into the state, including illicit varieties. In an article entitled “Vicious Circle of Hooch,” senior journalist Vechuchira Madhu said 8.8 million litres of spirit are smuggled into Kerala yearly from the neighboring states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
“Kerala becomes the biggest market of illicit spirit business in the country”, he said.
The drinking comes at a high cost. Dr. Indira Devi, a feminist at Kochi, told IPS that a good chunk of spousal violence against Kerala women was related to husbands drinking. “State crime statistics had revealed a nearly 50 percent increase in wife-beating complaints during the period 1998 to 2008.”
Social drinking is, of course, accepted, and liquor is essential at weddings, funerals and other social occasions. But the number of chronic drinkers in Kerala is rising and now includes teenagers and young women.
T. V. Rajesh, secretary of Democratic Youth Federation, told media that even 13-year-olds are trying liquor and that a large number of young women had turned routine drinkers.
As a result, he said, “A plan is being prepared to form community groups for checking alcohol abuse in public places and venues of social gatherings.”
Hospitals and rehabilitations centres are packed with patients suffering from alcohol-related diseases. Dr. K. Pramod, a well known physician at Thrissur, said, “Alcohol- related diseases are growing alarmingly and there is no exact number of drunkards undergoing treatment every year.”
Multinational alcohol beverage companies have identified India as one of the most attractive markets for investment.
Jake Jacob, Regional Director of the renowned French group Gerard Bertrand Wine, said, “Today, India is one of the fastest growing markets and we are keen in establishing our presence here.”
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