AT 11 O'CLOCK on a Saturday morning, there are already a dozen men queuing?at a ramshackle liquor shop near Kovalam beach, a popular tourist spot in?the small southern Indian state of Kerala. A regular stream of scooters and?auto-rickshaws brings ever more punters. Come dusk, the queue will be many?times longer, according to one rickshaw driver parked outside. ?This is our?one problem,? he says.
Perhaps surprisingly, sleepy Kerala is India?s booziest state. It gets through 8.3 litres (15 pints) of alcoholic drinks per person per year, according to a 2008 report by Johnson Edayaranmula, the director of a national alcohol and?drug-awareness group based in the state capital, Thiruvananthapuram.?Punjabis, often stereotyped as India?s party animals, came second with 7.9 litres. The national average was 5.7 litres. A 2011 report by one of?India?s largest trade bodies similarly found that ?Kerala accounted for 16%?of national alcohol sales, the largest proportion of any state. Mr?Edayaranmula warns that all data must be approached with caution, given the?prevalence of illicit sales. Yet, even if those were included, he is confident that Kerala would remain in first place.
Keralites say their drinking culture, and not just the amount imbibed, is intense. Men sit alone in dingy bars, on beaches, or at home, and drink with the sole purpose of getting drunk. A bar-owner in Thrissur, an inland city off the tourist trail, says a solitary customer will happily sink 6 ?pegs?, or 60ml shots, of rum or brandy in an hour. Fortunately, he says, Keralites are too laid-back for drunken brawls. But campaigners say other outcomes, such as mental illness, unhappy ?marriages, and lower economic productivity are big causes for concern. The state had India's second-highest rate of reported suicides in 2011.
Kerala?s leaders are also worried. On February 20th, the state?s coalition government, led by the dynastic Congress party that also runs India?s national coalition, raised the drinking age from 18 to 21.?In January, it appointed a one-man commission to assess the state's problem with alcoholism. Moreover, as of last summer, bars can only open at 8am?this might not sound all that strict, but they used to open at dawn to catch market traders on their way to work. Some high court judges ?recently called for bars to stay closed during the day altogther.
Home-made spirits such as arrack and toddy, made from fermented coconut water or palm tree sap, have long been part of Kerala?s culture. Yet Keralites say today?s widespread binge-drinking, driven by commercially brewed liquor bought in bars and shops, is a modern phenomenon. Since the 1980s, Keralite men have been going to the Persian Gulf en masse for work and sending home large pay packets. Periods under a Communist-led?coalition government and strong trade unions have deterred many industries that could have created jobs at home. Many emigrant workers then retire early, coming home to a quiet state where there is little to do. ?There is no doubt that the Gulf boom has had an effect [on drinking]. The easy money is there,? says Mr Edayaranmula.
For those who do find work at home, the state also has the highest wages in?India for many manual jobs. ?Even a [builder] is getting paid a lot?if they?get 500 rupees ($9.15) a day, they can spend 200-300 rupees drinking,? the?bar owner in Thrissur says of his customers. A tropical climate contributes?further to a slower pace of life. In short, Keralites increasingly have the?means and time to get sozzled.
The politicians, while keen to clamp down, are in a bind. The Kerala State Beverages Corporation, a state-owned monopoly that controls all liquor shops and ?wholesale booze sales to bars, is booming. KSBC's taxes contributed over $1.2bn to Kerala?s coffers in 2011-12, accounting for a fifth of the state?s overall revenues. Kerala?s three fellow southern states ? Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh ? have similar monopolies. Therefore while bars? opening hours are debated, KSBC shops, like the one by Kovalam beach, are open 11 hours a day and seven days a week. The state still seems in two minds as to what costs more: slow-moving citizens or sober ones.