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No Social Distancing, More Domestic Abuse: Alcohol Shops May Save Economy but Put Many at Risk

Representative image.

Representative image.

The government needs to find more permanent solutions that not only ensure social distancing but also take into account the human cost that women must pay to help the economy get back on track.

As alcohol shops across the country opened their shutters and saw the light of day for the first time in 41 days since the government imposed a national lockdown, guzzlers across cities broke all social distancing norms and thronged to shops in hordes.

The government's decision to open alcohol shops across red, orange and green zones was met with an overflow of enthusiasm as Indians braved the hot sun and threat of coronavirus to stand in long queues outside shops. Within just a few hours of shops opening, scenes of mass hysteria outside liquor shops flooded social media and news outlets.

The rush for alcohol was such in Delhi that four districts in the national capital had to be shut down within hours of opening to contain the chaos and panic created by crowds baying for booze.

While the Ministry of Home Affairs released a detailed list of rules alcohol shops needed to follow in order to function amid Phase three of the lockdown, it was perhaps naive of the government to assume billions of Indians would follow the advisory.

In all the photos and videos of the mad rush, however, women remained missing from the picture. Hardly a surprise. But let's get to that later.

Home delivering liquor

With respect to the ongoing pandemic, one begs to ask the question - why were liquor shops opened in the first place? If the tanking economy is your answer then consider this - why not home deliver alcohol like other essential items? If governments allow home delivery of liquor instead of opening shops, those queuing up on streets could make the same purchase from inside their homes rather than risking themselves and others with COVID-19.

The idea is not novel. States like West Bengal and Chhattisgarh are already implementing a home delivery system for delivering alcohol to people's doorsteps. Bengal's Excise department on Monday issued an order in which it said the state would encourage home delivery of alcohol in every way possible to facilitate social distancing while allowing the sale of liquor.

Earlier in April, the Confederation of Indian Alcoholic Beverage Companies (CIABC) had also written to several ministers including state heads and health as well as commerce minister to allow the online sale of liquor.

As videos of customers thronging shops across India went viral, many on social media also asked the same question. Why not make alcohol available through home delivery?

Governments can set a limit to weekly or monthly consumption and maintain a tab for each ordering customer to ensure they don't exceed the permitted limit. E-commerce sites, third party delivery services, and state-regulated apps could be used to order alcohol online, even helplines can be set up for the quick and easy delivery of alcohol.

Since the government thinks the best way to revive the economy amid the coronavirus lockdown is to reopen alcohol shops, online delivery of stipulated quantities of alcohol could help avert a potential health crisis.

Alcohol and women

While the end of India's own version of "Prohibition" saw many, many men rejoicing on streets after buying alcohol, or simply standing in long queues to wait their turn, women remained missing from the queues. With a growing number of domestic violence cases amid lockdown, the opening of liquor stores could lead to further aggression and violence against women at home.

Several studies have linked substance abuse to an increase in intensity and/or frequency of violence. Data from the 2004 Global Burden of Disease project showed that over 248,000 deaths annually were attributable to alcohol in some way or other.

India is not new to the women's agitation against the problem of alcoholism in their husbands. The anti-arrak movement in Andhra Pradesh led by rural women led to several regulations and temporary prohibition of alcohol as well.

But one need not go as far back to trace the link between alcohol consumption and domestic violence amid lockdown. The State Commission for Women in Punjab has already raised the issue where the state government has allowed the sale of liquor. The Police helpline in Punjab registered over 700 complaints of domestic violence.

As per the latest figures, cases of domestic violence between February and April 20 increased from 3,287 to 3,993 and daily calls received on the police helpline registered an increase of 34 percent. Gender expert Dr Ritu Lethal from Punjabi University told The Telegraph that at a time when people are "jobless and frustrated, alcohol consumption will only worsen things". She wondered why the government would not delay the opening of liquor stores until the end of the lockdown.

The answer might lie in the Rs 2.48 trillion that state governments together earn every year from excise duty revenues across states. As sales resumed, most state governments have announced tall hikes in excise duties to cope with economic losses caused by the lockdown. In a country that repeatedly puts women in its lowest list of priorities, hoping that state governments would forego revenues to enhance women's safety at home is a far cry.

While home delivery of alcohol and state-controlled limitation on sale could serve as short term measures to curb overcrowding in shops and violence caused due to overconsumption, the government needs to find more permanent solutions that not only ensure social distancing but also take into account the human cost that women must pay to help the economy get back on track.