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How Alcoholism Scars India

Amid alarming reports of soaring sexual assault rates, The Fix reports from India on the extent to which alcohol is to blame.

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Patients in West Bengal receiving treatment after drinking toxic bootlegged
alcohol Photo via

By Kristen McGuiness

05/01/13

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In the last few months, news reports out of India have painted a terrifying picture of a nation in crisis, from the brutal rape of a Delhi student in December to the March gang rape of a Swiss tourist to the recent assault on a five-year child (who died on Monday). India is faced with a disturbing epidemic of sexual abuse against its women and children, with reports indicating that over 53% of children experience sexual abuse, while rape cases have increased by 25% in the last six years.

But what has been talked about far less is the country's similar epidemic of alcoholism. While recently traveling in India, I had the unique opportunity and privilege of attending women's meetings sponsored by an NGO in the Tamil Nadu region, where the local women spoke freely about their concerns. They explained that the alcoholism rates amongst the male population in their rural communities are as high as 90%, which they attribute to increased violence, unemployment and a breakdown of their traditional cultures.

According to the Indian Alcohol Policy Alliance, per capita consumption of alcohol in India increased by 106.7% from 1970 to 1996.

According to Sr. Sukant Khurana, a New York-based neuroscientist from Delhi who specializes in alcohol addiction, “There are a number of emerging trends in India right now in terms of addiction. You have migrating labor that have been destabilized searching for work, and then you have border issues with the smuggling of illegal drugs, and then there are issues within the elderly population, and the whole area of joined family. And then with families with money, there is alcohol addiction in teenagers," he continues. "You have similar alcohol issues and related violence in the Northeast. The trends are spread out, but I think the one thing that unites them is the idea in India that if you have any kind of mental health or psychiatric issue, it is a taboo.”

It is these secrets that, according to local peoples, are not only killing off members of the community, but inciting violence. According to Shiva, a Tamil man from the Pondicherry area, who has been sober now for over five years, it was the taboo that helped to keep him drunk “It is a disease, it is a family disease, but not one that anyone wants to talk about," he says. "People encourage you to drink. They say it will relieve your problems. They have no awareness around what it is really doing.”

Perhaps one of the biggest issues is the type of alcohol being consumed. Though there have been a number of cases where homemade alcohol in India has led to sickness and numerous deaths, very few people recognize it as a problem. As Shiva explains, “They drink this spirit that is direct alcohol. It is country-made with rotten fruit and batteries. We are ruining ourselves. I saw my father and my grandfather drinking it, and it makes people crazy. When I had a meeting in the jail, 99.95% of the criminals didn’t know what they were doing because they were drunk.”

Dr. Khurana warns about using alcoholism as a scapegoat for crime, explaining that it cannot necessarily be linked directly to the increased violence in India. “It’s a more complicated issue," he says. "According to a lot of psychological studies, in most instances there is significant planning involved before one commits a crime. It's not like a guy will drink alcohol and say, ’Oh let me do whatever I want.’”

But as Dr. Khurana acknowledges, there is a link between alcoholism and decreased inhibition. “The bonding of males over alcohol is still a communal occasion. Alcohol removes the inhibition and allows them to do things they might not otherwise do. Alcohol affects the neural channels, changing us neurologically. Though the criminal already has a criminal intent to do something, alcohol can lower the inhibition.”

According to the Indian Alcohol Policy Alliance, per capita consumption of alcohol in India increased by 106.7% over the 15-year period from 1970 to 1996. In addition, it reports that “85% of men who were violent towards their wives were frequent or daily users of alcohol. More than half of the abusive incidents were under the influence of alcohol. An assessment showed that domestic violence reduced to one tenth of previous levels after alcohol treatment.”

Unfortunately, treatment programs are still rare, with only 26 programs in the entire country listed by the Alliance. But Shiva says that is beginning to change, “Nowadays the women’s groups are really getting involved. They are the ones being affected, they really know and understand the problem.”

Though self-help women’s groups in India were originally formed around the need for micro-finance lending—where 10-20 women would join together to take on loans—they have now become a much larger part of the community, trying to fill the role of traditional elders. For Shiva, they have been indispensible to bringing alcohol education to the communities. “We did a meeting with a local NGO and the women’s groups and over 300 women participated," he says. "Many of them were crying because they have lost their husbands and brothers and mothers. By educating people, we have begun to see some progress. Locally here in Tamil Nadu, they are working to open another treatment center to work with alcoholics and addicts and more and more [AA] meetings in the Tamil language are being started.”

According to Dr. Khurana, though the work being done locally is important, the bigger issue is that it is not being supported nationally, “Most of the things that the government has done, including a government imposed ban, have been counterproductive. Though the women’s groups have done a lot of good, if you’re looking to change society, it's not going to come from small isolated NGOs. It needs to be a sustained effort. If you really want to make a change, it needs to be part of a political, larger movement. It needs to be about a shift in policy.”

But for sober folks like Shiva, both the problem and the solution are more homegrown. “73 people have come to meetings with me since I got sober, and 60 of them are still sober," he says. "Some went to treatment and others just went to AA meetings, and those that have relapsed have stayed in contact. It’s really going well. There is hope for us. Some people come to the meeting and don’t understand, and they say they are not alcoholic, but they keep coming, even when they stay away, they come back floundering. At first, it’s just an artificial acceptance but then when they go out again they see that their wounds are much fresher, and they work the program much differently.“

Though Shiva is a success story, there is much fear about what alcoholism is doing to the country, and, as seen over the last few months, its potential role in the increased violence against women. Recent statistics indicate that up to 70% of women experience either sexual or physical abuse in their lifetime—often from a partner or family member. As Dr. Khurana recently wrote in the online journal Youth Ki Awaaz: “Despite adoption of western lifestyles, middle class in urban India has yet to entirely do away with the old mores and values. For a few in the big city, the old values are still the core of their identity, while for others they are suitable pretences [sic], resulting in a schizophrenic environment where youngsters grow up absorbing the worst of both the eastern and the western influences.”

It is this "schizophrenia" that may not only be to blame for the India’s alcoholism but also for the devastating violence affecting its most vulnerable citizens. And though no issue can be simplified to just one cause, the village women with whom this reporter spoke say that until the alcohol problem is addressed, little can be done about the tragic deterioration of their culture.

Kristen McGuiness is a regular contributor to The Fix who is based in Paris. Her last piece was about being sober in India. She is also the author of 51/50: The Magical Adventure of a Single Life.

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