K A Shaji
``WHAT ARE you going to do this evening?” asks Malayalam cinema’s superstar Mohanlal on hoardings and in television advertisements. A glassful of ice cubes in hand and the logo of a liquor brand in the background,the actor exhorts his fellow Malayalis to make their evenings merry and heady.
It may be ironical that Keralites accepted Mohanlal’s incarnation as the brand ambassador of a liquor brand when they forced another superstar (Mammooty) to withdraw from being the Coca-Cola brand ambassador. And this is happening amidst a growing clamour by conservative groups demanding prohibition as the remedy to all ills plaguing the state. But neither the church nor the Jamat-e-Islami voiced any concern when Mohanlal’s huge hoardings sprouted everywhere.
When contacted, Mohanlal defended his appearing in the surrogate ad. “I am not the first actor to do such a commercial. I am surprised that those who have come out against the advertisement have not spoken a word on the endorsements I have done for AIDS prevention, Southern Railways and on social issues. Have they ever complimented me for that? I have done inebriated scenes in films and have received compliments for them. Many fail to realise that liquor in Kerala is the biggest revenue earner for the government. Will the government stop the sale of liquor to curb alcoholism?”
Mohanlal’s reaction demonstrates that the state’s soft spot for liquor has not been affected even after then CM AK Antony banned the manufacture and sale of arrack and imposed a 200 percent tax on Indian-made foreign liquor (IMFL) a decade ago. Successive governments have stuck to the status quo fearing loss of women’s votes and wrath of fundamentalist groups. As a result, liquor is still expensive.
However, the growing addiction to liquor is not really a rosy picture. Data from the State Beverages Corporation indicate that liquor consumption is expected to touch an all-time record of Rs 3,700 crore this year. According to the Kerala Economic Review 2006, 72 percent of the 42,365 road accidents — which claimed 3,203 lives and injured 51,127 — can be attributed to drunken driving. There is a suicide every hour, half of them linked to alcoholism. Also, Kerala’s suicide rate is 28 persons per lakh population, more than double the national average of 11. But such warnings and anti-alcohol campaigns seem to be landing on deaf ears.
Three people died after drinking hooch during Onam festivities this year. The sale of IMFL during Onam touched an all-time high of Rs 144.48 crore as against Rs 126.75 crore during the same period last year. Traditionally, drinking was never an integral part of this harvest festival, but of late rum and whisky have become a common feature like payasam.
An especially alarming aspect has been the number of teenagers taking to alcohol. According to the Kerala Economic Review, the average age of those beginning to drink in 1986 was 19 — by 1990 it dropped to 17 and by 1994 the age was 14. The 21-40 age group is also the one that accounts for the maximum number of suicides in the state.
HIGH LEVELS of consumption mean added revenue for the exchequer. Which is why successive state governments have not addressed the problem. No other public sector undertaking has been a success quite like the Kerala Beverages Corporation. In 1984, when it was formed, the corporation’s annual sales were of Rs 55.46 crore. Last year, they were Rs 3,143 crore. Of this, Rs 2,424 crore went as excise and other taxes. The cheapest IMFL brand costs Rs 300 for a 750 ml bottle.
Social scientists discern more factors behind the Malayali’s obsession with the bottle. Though unemployment levels are high, even those who are not working have access to disposable income.
Remittances from abroad are often squandered back home. If one asks those who storm the cheaper bars as soon as they open, they will typically say that they have nothing else to do.
But it’s not the unemployed alone who hit the bottle with a vengeance.
Health activists say drinking has become a way of life, spurred on by images in advertisements and Malayalam cinema. Adinad Sasi, theatre person and a founder-member of the Kerala Alcohol Consumers Welfare Forum, says an alcoholic is a major taxpayer and the government must take care of his family’s welfare if he dies drinking.