The cure is worse than the disease
Thanks to the present government and the liquor lobbies, social stigma is almost gone, aggravating further the misery of people of the lower strata
In an ostensible attempt to deal with the problem of spurious liquor that has been dogging the country and killing several people in the state, the government of Andhra Pradesh has officially begun promoting the India-made foreign liquor, with the result that the social stigma of drinking is slowly fading and mushrooming shops are making liquor easily available. But in the bargain, such promotion is further aggravating the misery of the people of the lower strata. Drunken men not only squander their daily earnings but also batter their women and children. It is a daily affair. Deprived of finances to run their kitchens, the women have to work as housemaids or take up menial jobs; their children drop out of schools to join petty jobs or get into petty crimes. The expedient counter to the ill has proved to be counterproductive; cure being worse than the disease itself.
There are people who speak in defence of liquor – about the elevation of spirit, drowning of sorrow, clarity of thought, losing of inhibitions, etc. But they are occasional, private, or social drinkers, and cause no harm to their families. However, for the men from the poor, lower, and lower-middle classes, these are alien words; for them what all matters is a drink to get a kick and get drunk. He drinks and loses his senses to causes unforeseen trauma to his own people. Even a good husband loses his sanity to clobber his wife and children, and deprives them of daily rations; a good driver loses his job when he kills people with his misjudgement.
Just visualise the pathetic scenes: Early in the morning, a young housemaid appears at the house where she works, hungry, exhausted with sleeplessness and bruised with the thrashing from the night. Although her auto driver husband was the reason for that misery, amidst sobs she still says, 'He is a good man, but..., it is only the drink.' And he drinks every day. Another servant elsewhere narrates how her young son of twenty, a school drop-out working as a painter, has taken to drinks; she is used to her husband's tantrums on drinks for years. A landless labourer gets his share of daily wages in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme without even working on that day after the authority pockets the rest of it. He reaches home fully drunk and creates ugly scenes. These are everyday happenings in lakhs of houses in the country, except in places where it is scarcely available. Yet, so strong is the nexus between the liquor lobbies and their cohorts in the governments that fooling the public, political parties keep playing their dramatised tussles.
The on-going drama of liquor war in Andhra is escalating as we are inching towards the elections. It is common knowledge that like sand and land mafias, liquor lobbies too have been supporting the incumbent government for obvious reasons. It is also an open secret that the leader of the opposition party had offered liquor, biryani, and thousand rupees to each voter to lure them in the last elections. Yet tongue-in-cheek people are anxiously listening to his promises to free the state of liquor.
Andhra has always been a wet state, although it was only dampness till recent times. Drinking evoked a social stigma. The toddy-huts were seen only in the outskirts of the villages; a few liquor shops carefully concealed from public gaze in towns and cities. It all kept the consumption low. Now, courtesy of the present government and the liquor lobbies, social stigma is almost gone; liquor-ware is being prominently displayed every 100 meters in the government-supported belt shops, and the idea of affordable tetra packs and small bottles has become a big hit with the masses. In place of earlier dampness, a flood of alcohol has inundated every place. Hitherto non-drinkers taste it; occasional drinkers are turning habitual; and the habitual as addicts. This flourishing business added about Rs 12,000 crores to government coffers in 2017 alone, a whopping part of it coming from the men of the lower strata whose families are to face the brunt of the problem. Is this revenue not unethical, like collecting it by legalising prostitution? Alas! Undauntedly using the facade of saving people from spurious liquor, those in power and their fund-raisers are wooing the poor-man-customer.
The poor man is being tempted by the world of ecstasy. Indifferently though, he is only aware of the warning 'consumption of alcohol is injurious to health', but is not conscious of anything else. An ignorant man that he is, he does not even know that alcohol reaches different parts of his brain and slows down their functions – the cerebral cortex affecting his cognitive thinking, behaviour, and voluntary muscle movements; the limbic system disrupting his ability to control his emotions; the cerebellum losing control over the coordination of his muscles, his walking and movements; the hypothalamus and pituitary gland that control his kidneys make him urinate often; and finally the liquor touches his medulla that controls involuntary actions, making him sleepy and then unconscious. He does not know that in the long run, these systems become inert and that recent researches have proved that alcohol is dangerous to health even in small quantities. He may not even know that his liver has a limit to withstand the onslaught of alcohol, beyond which it becomes sick with sclerosis. Alas! How can he also know that he is causing immense agony to his near and dear ones when he does not do it consciously? He is certainly not a villain, but those of vested interests, who ignore the trauma of people as collateral damage and a social problem, and make liquor easily available to ruin him, are. But, who will care?
People too, like the governments, wish it away as a social problem. Then, who will help these families? Governments can certainly do it if they have a 'will to'. When Gujarat and Bihar can do away with such revenue, why not the other states? Critics may say that prohibition has failed. Partly true. A few people of Gujarat would enter Daman and Diu, get drunk and fall on the roads at the borders. Similarly, the rich can get any liquor they want to be delivered at their door-steps. Illegal brewing and bootlegging could flourish. Pockets of police and excise officials and some politicians can also bulge. Spurious liquor could kill people, as reported from time to time from Gujarat and Bihar. But yet, liquor is not freely available. Since the poor cannot afford to pay for the illegal supplies, their families live in peace. Is it not a big plus of prohibition? Only that the attendant ailments need to be tackled with an iron hand. Alternatively, why not make liquor prohibitively expensive? If the rich and those who can afford it crave for this luxury, let them pay for it. Why punish the hapless families of the poor? Governments, if they are truly welfare-minded, should revise their strategy.
When the governments fail, people should succeed. People – the women, and a large number of men, who do not drink, can set things right if they all can come together. They have indeed done it in some places. These villages are dry for years now; illegal brewing and spurious liquor have also stopped. A new culture has set in; they keep themselves engaged in many constructive and entertaining activities. When they have shown their will and the way, why can't the rest of the country emulate to help the lakhs of suffering families?
(Dr. N Dilip Kumar, IPS (retd), is a former Member of Public Grievances Commission, Delhi. The views expressed are strictly personal)