In Assam, until the 1980s, we barely heard about whiskey, rum, vodka and other kinds of alcohol — what we call Indian Made Foreign Liquor or IMFL — let alone consuming it,” says a Guwahati-based IMFL retailer. “It was only in the ’90s, after liberalisation, that alcohol entered our drawing rooms through television serials and films. The local tribes, such as the Khasis and Bodos, brewed their alcohol and that was more a tradition than a leisure activity. Today, it is all different — alcohol is everywhere,” says the 55-year-old businessman who doesn’t want to be identified.
The recent Supreme Court decision to ban liquor vends within 500 metres of national and state highways, with the bench expressing concern over nearly 1.5 lakh deaths every year in road mishaps, has come amid a growing clamour for prohibition across the country. But away from the government orders and crackdowns, across India, the clinking glasses have rarely gone dry, with alcohol consumption showing a steady increase.
According to the 68th report of the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) on Household Consumption of Various Goods and Services in India, in 2011-12 (the last year for which the data is available), per capita alcohol consumption in rural India increased by nearly 28 per cent, while that of urban India rose by nearly 14 per cent.
So what are Indians drinking? Patrons and connoisseurs say globalisation, travel and rising incomes have all contributed to whetting our appetites for all kinds of liquor. With international brands keen on opening shop in India, the market is only bound to grow further, they say. For now, the numbers show that from toddy to whiskey, country liquor to IMFL and beer to, more recently, wine — we are knocking it all down.
Three states in the southern part of the country — Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala — along with Arunachal Pradesh and Assam make frequent appearances in the NSSO data on states that consume the maximum amount of toddy, beer, foreign liquor and wine across rural and urban centres.
Arunachal Pradesh tops both beer and country liquor categories in rural and urban areas. Among urban areas consuming foreign liquor/wine, Arunachal tops with 213 ml per capita per week, while at 93 ml, Sikkim is the top consumer in this category in rural areas. According to Arunachal’s excise figures, the state downed 1.93 crore litres of IMFL and nearly 5 lakh litres of beer in 2015-16.
Contrary to popular perception, it is not Kerala but Andhra Pradesh that has the highest intake of toddy both in rural and urban centres — 793 ml and 69 ml respectively — over a 30-day period.
More recently, 2015-16 excise department figures for Telangana and Andhra Pradesh show 303 lakh cases of IMFL (one case has 12 bottles, each of 750 ml capacity) and 189 lakh cases of beer were sold in Andhra Pradesh in 2015-16; in Telangana, 238.62 lakh cases of IMFL and 334.56 lakh cases of beer were sold over the same period.
“The entry of IT companies, especially in Hyderabad, has contributed to the rising sales. In the past 2-3 years alone, 60-80 new pubs have opened in Hyderabad,” says Gopal Singh Thakur, general manager at Spoil bar in Hyderabad. “When I started out, 100 Pipers and Blender’s Pride were big brands. Today it is all about imported liquor and single malts.” The hospitality professional, who has been working in the city for 13 years, says the rise in beer sales can also be attributed to the many breweries that have come up in Telangana the past year.
“In Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, drinking was always a part of the local culture and people preferred toddy and local brews. But now, with people from Delhi, Mumbai and other places coming here, the demand for IMFL and beer has grown in the cities,” says Thakur, adding that the repealing of the prohibition law in then united Andhra Pradesh in 1997 also opened up the market.
Not too far away, in Kerala, considered India’s ‘wettest’ state, and which in 2014 declared its plans to go dry in 10 years, 16.43 per cent of the population drinks — 31 per cent men and 3 per cent women — according to the excise department figures. According to the Thiruvananthapuram-based Alcohol and Drug Information Centre, 20 per cent of those who drink in Kerala are below the age of 21, with many of them getting initiated into drinking as early as 13.5 years of age.
“When you think of Kerala, you think of heavy drinking and long queues outside bars. There was a time when bars would open as early as 5 am for labourers, who mostly had toddy and arrack (local brew),” says Manilal, a documentary filmmaker based in Thrissur whose book Bar/Barians, which talks about the history of alcohol in Kerala, released earlier this year.
The 54-year-old also complains about the state government promoting foreign liquor “because there is more money to be earned there”. “Toddy is our natural product but there is little support for it. Toddy is still the liquor of choice for people because not everyone can afford foreign liquor — a bottle of foreign liquor costs Rs 400 for 750 ml and toddy comes for a mere Rs 8 a litre,” he says.
So what explains Kerala’s fascination for alcohol? “It’s difficult to say, but I believe it’s because society imposes so many restrictions on people here, primarily moral ones, and alcohol gives them an outlet,” says Manilal, pointing out that the percentage of women drinking is still very low in the state. “Earlier, they would be called prostitutes if they did so; now women who drink are considered radical, as people who are challenging the man’s world.”
While alcohol sales earned the Kerala government Rs 10,012 crore in 2014-15, the Tamil Nadu government clocked up to Rs 26,188 crore in revenues through its outlets of the Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation (TASMAC), which has near-complete monopoly over wholesale and retail vending of alcohol in the state. Of the Rs 1.48 lakh crore state revenue in 2015-16, 33 per cent came from TASMAC.
Much like Kerala, here too several voices raise concerns about the government’s push for foreign liquor. “Until 1980-81, toddy and arrack were sold and consumed. Then sometime in the ’80s, during MGR’s time, toddy was banned and IMFL was introduced. Rum, gin etc began to be produced by flavouring molasses. But if you compare these to international standards, none of them could be called rum or gin. The curbs continue even today. In 2001, TASMAC got wholesale monopoly over alcohol and the AIADMK and DMK, despite their political differences, worked out a deal,” says A R Venkatachalapathy, a Tamil historian and author.
Nearly 70 lakh people visit TASMAC shops on any given day in Tamil Nadu and the state revenue growth from liquor sale is around 11 per cent annually. Figures show that over the years the state has largely stuck to brandy — 85 per cent of the total alcohol sales — followed by rum, vodka, gin, whiskey and wine.
Country liquor, however, has managed to hold its own in several parts of the country. Himachal Pradesh, which hosts around 1.5 crore tourists every year, still records at least 90-95 per cent more sales of country liquor — which is said to be preferred by locals — than IMFL. In 2016, the state sold 29.55 lakh boxes (each with 12 bottles) of IMFL, while local country liquor brands such as Una No 1, pulled off nearly double the number in sales.
In UP, Punjab and Haryana too, residents prefer country liquor over foreign liquor and beer. In neighbouring Punjab, country liquor brands such as Khasa Mota Santra are known to do brisk business, selling over 26.92 crore bottles in 2016-17. IMFL and beer brands follow in at second and third place, with sales of 12.61 crore bottles and 5 crore bottles respectively. In Jharkhand, however, the scales are tipped in favour of beer, which sold 2.74 crore litres in 2015-16. IMFL stood a distant second, recording 1.58 crore litre in sales.
Assam, which occupies the second spot in rural centres and fifth in urban areas in the NSSO data on consumption of country liquor, saw its alcohol business take a hit following a Gauhati High Court order last year to close liquor shops and bars within 200 m of national highways. The ruling, which led to the the closure of nearly 350 vends in Assam between June and August 2016, coupled with several additional dry days during the Assembly elections in April 2016, was bad news for the state’s liquor business. Despite this, Assam registered a 4.97 per cent increase in IMFL consumption in 2016-17. However, beer saw a 6.73 per cent fall in consumption and country liquor fell by 10.99 per cent in the same period.
Now, with the SC ban, says the Guwahati-based alcohol retailer, “70 per cent of the shops in the state” will be forced to down their shutters. Among those, he says, is “the shop that received the first IMFL licence during the times of the British”. “But things won’t change, people will get alcohol from Meghalaya, where the norms are relaxed. Shops may be shut, but the consumer won’t stop drinking. Similarly, people in West Bengal will turn to Sikkim for their booze,” he says.
Sikkim and Meghalaya have been exempted from the SC directive because their topography would have made it impossible to relocate its liquor shops, around 90 per cent of which are along highways. Meghalaya consumed 1.7 crore litres of IMFL in 2015-16 and 2.12 lakh litres of beer in the same period.
Manipur and Nagaland are both dry states, while Mizoram repealed its prohibition order in 2014.
According to NSSO, an average person in rural India consumes 220 ml of alcohol in a week, or nearly 11 litres in a year, spending Rs 18.47 a month on intoxicants. Urban Indians consume much less — 96 ml of alcohol a week or 5 litres a year — spending Rs 16.77 on intoxicants in a month.
While whiskey remains a favourite, wine, which entered Indian markets in the ’90s, is still not the first choice for many, say experts. “Indian wine industry is very young, barely 40 years old. India traditionally does not have a wine drinking culture; it was considered a luxury. In the past 10 years, and specifically in the past five years, there has been substantial growth — 10 to 15 per cent — compared to Europe, where growth has stagnated,” says Bangalore-based blogger Ruma Singh, adding the future is “promising”.
Now companies such as Sula and Grover, which are old brands, have picked up. Small boutique wineries have come up — there is York in Maharashtra, Krsma which has just started in Karnataka — and they are already exporting to New York. It is an agricultural industry and could do with a lot of help from the government. Karnataka has taken a few steps to promote wine, but these are not enough. A $5 bottle is three times the price by the time it reaches India,” says Singh.
According to the NSSO data, Karnataka consumes 101 ml of foreign liquor/wine over 30 days while neighbouring Maharashtra drank a mere 10 ml over the same period.
While many frown at the way India is guzzling, others say it’s encouraging how, with time, several taboos fell by the wayside. “There is so much more exposure today. People travel, their entire way of thinking has changed. Enjoying a drink is not such a big thing anymore,” says Adarsh Shetty, president of the Indian Hotel and Restaurant Association of Maharashtra. His state recorded an annual consumption of 3,228.28 lakh bulk litres of country liquor in 2016, the most preferred alcoholic drink in the state.
Sociologist Bhaichand Patel, who authored Happy Hours: The Penguin Book of Cocktails in 2009, says the “situation has changed remarkably, especially for women”. “Earlier, women who drank were frowned upon. My wife wouldn’t drink before my parents, but my daughter has no qualms about drinking with us. That is the change,” he says, noting how “India did not have a culture of drinking.” “Before the 1960s, both Delhi and Mumbai were dry. Even five-star hotels didn’t serve alcohol. The only people who could drink were foreigners. Some of us got rum from the Navy canteen. We got a bottle of Black Knight whiskey for Rs 50. Even the rich had Indian whiskey in the ’70s. Not any longer,” says Patel, adding that India remains the largest consumer of Indian whiskey, and comes second only to the US in consumption of Scotch whiskey.
So while there are no easy answers to what India is drinking, as Patel says, “today, with alcohol much more affordable, everyone’s drinking.”
With ENS inputs