In July this year, a Los Angeles Times report on Kerala’s alcohol economy ran with the headline: “Liquor is the lifeblood of India’s Kerala State.” A couple of months earlier, The Economist magazine carried a report with the title “Rum, rum everywhere” declaring Kerala “India’s booziest State” and highlighting Keralites’ addiction to rum. In a 2010 story titled ‘Kerala’s love affair with alcohol,’ the BBC News website noted: “People in the southern State of Kerala are the heaviest drinkers in India, and sales of alcohol are rising fast.”

Kerala’s tryst with liquor has made international headlines in the past five years. The State, known for its high human development index in spite of a low per capita income and lower Gross State Domestic Product, faces a growing drinking problem.

The National Sample Survey Organisation’s household consumption survey 2009-10 puts the per capita IMFL consumption of Kerala at 0.75 litres — the figure for other forms of liquor, though, is much higher.

Johnson J. Edayaranmula, Director, Alcohol and Drug Information Centre India (ADIC-India), feels that the NSS figure could have concealed the truth as most people under-report their drinking. “The figure must also not have considered the huge amount of liquor brought in by non-resident Keralites, the significant amount of illicit arrack and IMFL ‘seconds’ (alcohol with duty unpaid),” he said. “The low-tax liquor bought by Keralites from nearby Mahe (part of the Union Territory of Puducherry), too, was also not accounted for.” Mahe is a favourite watering hole of Keralites because of the price differential.

A serious business

Statistics apart, one look at the men lining up in front of any of the retail outlets of Kerala State Beverages Corporation (Bevco), is enough to confirm that alcohol is serious business in Kerala. Bevco is the government-owned wholesale and retail IMFL monopoly. “On an average, 3,000 customers visit each of our (338) retail shops each day,” he says. “This means we serve over one million people every day.” The average sale per day at each shop is 3,000 bottles. There are also 748 private bars doing roaring business and 43 Consumerfed (Kerala State Co-operatives Consumers’ Federation) outlets, as well as 4,500 toddy shops (palm wine parlours).

In a State that is a killing field for government-owned enterprises, Bevco is the grand exception. It is the only public-sector enterprise that marks double-digit, year-on-year increases in its payouts (taxes, charges, duties and dividends) to the government. It is also by far the largest profit-making public-sector unit.

Numbers don’t lie: the current profit margin on IMFL (wholesale) is 35 per cent while the retail margin is 20 per cent. In 2012-13, Bevco’s total revenue contribution to the State coffers was Rs 7,241 crore from a sales turnover of Rs 8,818 crore. The dividend Bevco paid to the government rose from 30 per cent in 1994-95 to 400 per cent in 2007-08 and 800 per cent in 2010-11.

The current government has taken some baby steps towards checking the runaway drinking trend. It has increased IMFL prices, raised the legal drinking age, reduced bars’ business hours and empowered panchayats and municipalities to say yes or no to opening new liquor outlets in their territories. There is also a nominal anti-liquor awareness campaign (to which Bevco made a paltry Rs. 3.5 crore contribution this year).

In the last financial year, the volume of liquor sold rose by only 1 per cent. And, in the first half of the current financial year, there was a 2 per cent decline in sales over the same period last year. Cynics say this is not so much due to the government’s efforts as the long and harsh monsoon this year. And because of the ‘Rishiraj Singh Effect’ (Singh, the current Transport Commissioner, has taken strong action to check drunk driving, including cancellation of driving licences).

BOYS IN THE LINE

Kerala has a population of 33 million, a tenth of which lives outside the State. “In my reckoning, at least one third of Kerala’s adult population (ages 15 to 60) drinks,” says Edayaranmula of ADIC-India. “Unlike in other States, working-class women rarely drink here, but more and more urban, educated, middle-class women are taking to drinking.” There is another worry: the mean age at entry level has fallen below 15. This is despite the government recently raising the legal drinking age from 18 to 21.

“I often spot boys in the line,” says a salesman at a Bevco outlet in Kochi. “It’s a big hassle to catch the underage customers, so we just look the other way.” Instances of schoolteachers reporting beer-drinking by boys to parents and principals are also on the rise.

In the past, drinking was confined to the working class and the upper strata of society. Now, a large section of the middle class is the main consumer of alcohol. Socialising, to most Keralites, means a drinking session with buddies. “Let’s have a Small” is the usual invitation for a get-together (small, here, means a small peg).

Until five years ago, Kerala had the country’s highest suicide rate. Social psychologists and psychiatrists used to link the high suicide rate to alcohol abuse. Now, the suicide rate has come down but drinking has gone up. A lot of social and economic reasons are being touted for the increase in drinking, including high worker wages (Rs 500 to 800 a day for manual workers), heavy foreign remittances, impact of neo-liberal economic policies, decay of social institutions and urbanisation.

No longer a taboo

“The socio-cultural taboo about drinking has almost gone,” says Dr. C.J. John, a Kochi-based psychiatrist who has studied Kerala’s suicidal and drinking instincts. “This emboldens curious young adults to reach for the bottle. Young people think drinking makes them arrive socially.” The break-up of the joint family system, increasing isolation of the individual, growing alienation from the hard realities of life and the emotional numbness caused by the mobile phone, computer and television all contribute to the spread of drinking in the young generation, says John.

Prohibitionists, especially Catholic Church leaders, blame it on the easy access to drinking. They criticise the government’s soft policy for the mushrooming of drinking outlets. Naturally, Bevco is the focus of their ire.

In 1996, following a series of hooch deaths, the then government, headed by current Union Defence Minister A.K. Antony, banned the manufacture and sale of arrack. Later, the wholesale and retail sale of IMFL was made a State monopoly. IMFL leapfrogged in sales, boosting Bevco’s fortunes.

The rest, as they say, is history.

(This article was published on December 8, 2013)
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