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January 8, 1998


Pub cultureSouthern Discomfort
It was a typical Saturday evening in Bangalore. Seventeen young people celebrated the weekend, boozing the night away at a friend's place. Early next morning, 20-year-old Naresh L, who had come to Bangalore from Hyderabad to study engineering, was discovered dead, asphyxiated by his own vomit.

The police believe there might have been a drinking competition that night. A friend recalls Naresh complaining of feeling dizzy. He was escorted to the bathroom where he threw up and was then put to bed. The others continued partying. "We woke up around 6 am and checked on him. I shook him a couple of times and turned him over. His lips had turned purple and his arm was cold," said a student who had stayed back at the flat after the party.

Going on binges has become a serious problem among the youth in Bangalore and Naresh's death was a sad pointer to this dangerous trend.

The pub scene: Women drinkers are not uncommon Not that Bangalore has been sleeping on this problem. Police Commissioner L Revanna Siddaiah points out that there is no way to control alcohol abuse by the youth. "Drinking is not an offence in Bangalore. We are not a prohibition state."

Siddaiah's helplessness is only accentuated by a recent incident where four boys, aged about 13 years, had run away from home; one of them had even stolen a large amount of money from his father. "They were found in a Goa-bound bus," says the commissioner, "completely drunk and unable to take care of themselves. We recovered Rs 160,000 from them."

This easy access to money often results in uncontrolled drinking among 20-somethings or even among those barely into their teens, feels Siddaiah. "I know of a boy who had been given Rs 15,000 by his father to celebrate Diwali. What do you think the boy is likely to do? Have a boozing session, naturally."

Though he suggests "action-oriented programmes" to curb this growing menace, he does not see the police playing an overt rule. "Not only will it create a lot of ill-will, it might lead to the criminalisation of innocent people."

Drunken driving is another offshoot of this dangerous trend. Dr Sanjeev Jain of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences reveals that a large number of people in their mid-twenties report to the hospital with head injuries and brain damage which, most of the time, is caused due to drunken driving. "And the numbers have been going up since the last four-five years."

Dr Mohan Issac, head of the department of psychiatry, NIMHANS, adds, "Bangalore is an important alcohol market. It naturally follows that consumption will also be greater." Also, Bangalore is a fast-growing cosmopolitan city. "From a sociological perspective, I would say the problem is compounded by the fact that Bangalore does not have a conservative, local culture of its own."

Bangalore's now-famous pub-culture, influenced by the fact that the city is home to a number of liquor barons -- Vijay Mallya, for example - who base their business here, is also to blame. Large distillers like Khodays also operate from the city. Also, the alcohol market is expanding steadily every year. "The country is over-producing sugarcane," says Dr Jain. "Distilling the juice is the most profitable use of the excess crop."

A typical evening out The chairperson of the Bangalore chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous points out that "drinking has now become very much a part of social life. The taboos that existed earlier are gone." This, he feels, has indirectly encouraged the youth. "What is more worrying," he says, "is that young people rarely come to us for help. Very few alcoholics feel the desire to stop while there is still time."

Interestingly, Femme Affair, a bar targeted towards the women drinkers (male guests were allowed only if accompanied by women) which opened sometime in the middle of this year, had to shut shop due to a lukewarm response. But the sight of women drinkers has become fairly common in pubs. "It is very normal for a girl to drink nowadays," says Uma Rao, a second-year arts student. "Of course, boys usually drink more and I hardly ever see girls getting really drunk."

Though the younger generation cannot be stopped from visiting the city's favourite watering holes, it's important to tell them where to stop. The government can do its bit by keeping a check on the mushrooming of pubs and bars. As per excise department rules, no liquor outlet can come up within a 100 metres of any educational institution or a religious place. The pubs are supposed to down their shutters by a certain time and cannot be patronised by minors. It is now up to the law enforcement agencies to get their act together.

Lopamudra Bhattacharya. Kind courtesy: Sunday magazine

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