Saturday, March 13, 2010

People in the southern state of Kerala are the heaviest drinkers in India

People in the southern state of Kerala are the heaviest drinkers in India, and sales of alcohol are rising fast. The BBC's Soutik Biswas examines why.
Jacob Varghese says he began drinking when he was nine years old, sipping on his father's unfinished whisky and brandy in glass tumblers.

It's a terrifying story of a descent into alcoholism for this 40-year-old health inspector.

At school, he consumed cheap local liquor. He lived in a haze of alcohol through his teens and dropped out of college.

He lost a job, cut his wrists twice trying to end his life, landed up in rehabilitation centres and at the age of 32, was reduced to begging on the streets to fund his alcohol habit.

'Lost respect'

"Drinking is a disease in Kerala," he says, his voice dropping to a whisper.

"I lost my kin, my respect and all my money chasing alcohol. Everyone encourages you to have it - your friends, the government."

This was before he was dragged to the local Alcoholics Anonymous chapter by friends. This, after 17 years of drinking had reduced him to a mental wreck and a pauper.
Mr Varghese has been sober for the past eight years, and is now married with children and holds down a job.

"Many of my friends have not been as lucky. So many of my drinking buddies died, and others landed up in mental asylums," he says.

Kerala is India's tippler country. It has the highest per capita consumption - over eight litres (1.76 gallons) per person a year - in the nation, overtaking traditionally hard-drinking states like Punjab and Haryana.

Also, in a strange twist of taste, rum and brandy are the preferred drink in Kerala in a country where whisky outsells every other liquor.

Alcohol helps in giving Kerala's economy a good high - shockingly, more than 40% of revenues for its annual budget come from booze.

A state-run monopoly sells alcohol. The curiously-named Kerala State Beverages Corporation (KSBC) runs 337 liquor shops, open seven days a week. Each shop caters on average to an astonishing 80,000 clients.

This fiscal year the KSBC is expected to sell $1bn (£0.6bn) of alcohol in a state of 30 million people, up from $12m when it took over the retail business in 1984.

Similarly, revenues from alcohol to the state's exchequer have registered a whopping 100% rise over the past four years.

The monopoly is so professionally run that consumers can even send text messages from their phones to a helpline number to record their grievances.

"If we delay opening any of our shops by even five minutes, clients send us text messages saying that they are waiting to buy liquor," says KSBC chief N Shankar Reddy.

That's not all. There are some 600 privately run bars in the state and more than 5,000 shops selling toddy (palm wine), the local brew. There is also a thriving black market liquor trade.

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