Drinking during lockdown

It was around 9.30 pm when the phone call came.

“Dodum sir, police ka danda khake leke aya hain saman ko hum (I was thrashed by the cops but I got the stuff),” the voice on the other end of the line in his Assamese-accented Arunachali Hindi said. I knew instantly who it was (mostly because his number was saved on my phone), and what it was that he had brought (only because it could not be anything else).

By any standards a phone call from your local liquor guy, let us call him ‘Tom’, post-nine pm hardly seems like an urgent one. In a town with just about one lakh people in a state in India’s north-eastern corner during a COVID-induced national lockdown, it feels a tad unnecessary.

Yet, here I am, 11 minutes past three in the morning writing about that very phone call with a shot of what is clearly a knocked down version of a more famous coconut-flavoured rum.

Since the national lockdown began, which now seems like two decades ago, a slow realisation of the things we really need has begun to sink in.

Slowly, we’ve realised that we can live without that pair of Adidas Originals sneakers that a few months back we thought we just ‘had to have’, or that a two-year-old Chinese-branded phone with a 2,000-megapixel phone can take similarly high-resolution photos that the iPhone 48 can and be bought at one-fourth of its price.

And so far, in all honesty, alcohol has not been much of a casualty in Arunachal Pradesh.

When the lockdown was announced to begin on March 25, few paid heed or even cared about how long it would last. Groceries aside, most of us in the state knew that our tippling needs will be taken good care of, and so far it has.

Yes, liquor stores have officially been closed for a month now but who in the state can honestly say that they have been deprived of their need for alcohol. Liquor stores continue to operate, handing out booze to those patiently stalking the side entrance of their stores and signal to their ‘man’ to sneakily sneak out that bottle of whisky or the now over-priced beer cans.

It’s all happening, and we all know it.

‘Tom’ knows it; the driver of that government-issued Toyota Fortuner whom I saw less than a week back buying a large consignment of alcohol for his boss knows it. Who are we kidding?

Around two weeks back at a press conference, I asked our chief secretary if alcohol stores will be allowed to sell their wares.

Not wanting to seem frivolous, I carefully said that this may seem like a trivial question but it was one I wanted to ask.

His response was one that seemed wholly reasonable as he said that it was not a trivial question since the state government does earn a lot of revenue from it.

And he is right.

Arunachal Pradesh has one of the highest documented per capita spending on alcohol across the country. Two years back, the state government earned close to Rs 1,600 crore in revenue from alcohol sales alone. So don’t tell me it’s a matter of less importance.

Until I received that phone call from ‘Tom’, I hadn’t given much thought to how his business will handle the lockdown. By all accounts, I had been told that the liquor warehouses and those with licensed bonds to sell alcohol had enough stock to keep the state’s citizens tipsy for two months at the least.

But with ‘people’s movement’ restricted, it was not going to be an easy task to keep the business flowing, so to speak. That realisation hit me more recently when Tom told me that he’d have to sell cans of beer to me, one of his (I am assuming) favourite patrons, over and above the MRP.

It’s at that moment when it hit me that the lockdown, while necessary, will affect us in ways that we in smaller towns and areas have not even begun to fathom.

Pro-prohibition activists will probably rejoice at the fact that selling alcohol has become more difficult than ever now. They have a reason to celebrate, and in some cases, rightly so. Perhaps they lost someone dear to them to alcohol abuse (meaning someone who would get withdrawal symptoms when not drinking or someone would wake up and rinse their mouth with brandy instead of waiting till the sun sets). Those people have a right to promote anti-alcohol advocacy.

But since the law, in normal times, does not prohibit the sale of alcohol, how do people who have solely sold it for 15 years cope with a sudden ban?

Anti-alcohol activists often argue that those selling alcohol can easily move their trade to some other business. Perhaps they could but does something of that nature happen overnight?

Do you ask someone in the hydropower sector to suddenly shift to the cotton industry? Bad example. Let me try to be more ‘local’.

Say there’s this aunty next door who has been married to this good-for-nothing-constantly-playing-rummy-or-carrom husband for the past 20 years. The only way that she has been able to earn enough money to provide her children with formal education has been through twice a month trips to Dimapur, loading up five-XL black airbags of gaudy clothes and shoes to be sold at villages and small towns, and making the night-super bus ride a living hell for her co-passengers.

Are you going to tell her to till the farm, earn the same amount of money by selling cabbages and local patta as she did selling those god-awful clothes?

No, you’ll give her time; perhaps train her in some other vocation so she can settle into a new trade. In the meantime, what about those clothes manufacturers, the shipping people who bring those clothes in, the wholesalers who paid for those clothes?

It’s easy to make a judgement or even make a judgement call by subtracting the collateral impact of things.

Unfortunately, events in this global economy do not take place in isolation.

As another set of examples, what happens to those in the gig economy where freelance work and short-term contracts is the norm? How are those who are dependent on events in times of social distancing supposed to take care of themselves and their families since it is considered non-essential?

Travel is not necessarily considered ‘essential’ (although I would disagree) and is probably not advisable at this juncture. Even if the scenario does improve in the near future, will it still be advisable to travel? What happens to the tourism sector and places dependent on it to run its local economy?

To ensure that the pandemic and the resultant lockdown do not bring about unforeseen damages, governments around the world will have to ultimately provide economic stimulus packages for sectors considered non-essential.

And in an era of WhatsApp forwards, Twitter re-tweets, and Facebook shares that reach a massive audience, will journalism still be considered a non-essential service? I am not sure. But till the time Tom keeps my ethanol needs satiated, I will keep writing.