Politics of Alcohol

Murari Sharma


A folktale from eastern Nepal tells us that once a villager recognized the death and tricked him into a lock-up. People stopped dying. A worried Goddess Parvati sent alcohol to earth to make the villagers drink, fight, and reveal the death’s whereabouts. The villagers did what Parvati had expected, and the death was found and released. 

A prudent use of liquor helps you clinch a job, promotion and business deal and acquire money and power. T Huckle, RQ You, and S Casswell have found that higher frequency of light drinking contributes to higher lifetime income. In America and Holland, moderate drinkers have 10 percent higher lifelong income than abstainers. M. Corcoran and others say it is because moderate drinking facilitates social and job related networking.

However, prudence and addiction rarely walk together. For most, alcohol begins to consume them as soon as they start consuming alcohol. 

Immoderate use of spirits leads to crime and incarceration. According to the US National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), in about 3 million violent crimes each year victims perceive the offenders to have been drinking. Of them, about 183,000 (37 percent) of rapes and sexual assaults involve alcohol use by the offender, as do just over 197,000 (15 percent) robberies, about 661,000 (27 percent) aggravated assaults, and 1.7 million (25 percent) simple assaults.

In the UK, the British Medical Association has reported that alcohol was a factor in 60-70 percent of homicides, 75 percent of stabbings, 70 percent of beatings, and 50 percent of fights and domestic assaults. In Australia, 59 percent of physical assault victims aged 18 years and over believed alcohol and/or other substance abuse contributed to their most recent incident, while 55 percent of face-to-face assault victims believed the same. 

According to police sources, around 70 percent of all crimes in Nepal now are related to alcohol and drug addiction. The Child Workers in Nepal (CWIN), an NGO, reported back in 2001: “In a large-scale study covering about 2,400 households in 16 districts, the adult respondents perceived the impact of family members’ use of alcohol and drugs on children as violence and physical abuse (33.4 percent), neglect and mental abuse (28.5 percent), deprivation from education (20.2 percent) and push factor for children to use intoxicants (11.1 percent)…” 

Abuse of firewater also contributes to poor health. The WHO Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health (2011) asserts this: Nearly 4 percent of all deaths are related to alcohol. Most alcohol-related deaths result from injuries, cancer, cardiovascular diseases and liver cirrhosis. Globally, 6.2 percent of all male deaths are related to alcohol, compared to 1.1 percent of female deaths, and 320 000 young people aged 15-29 years die annually, from alcohol-related causes, resulting in 9 percent of all deaths in that age group.

Excessive drinking and poverty feed each other into a vicious cycle. Flora Matheson has found that men in poor neighborhoods drink twice as much, and women slightly more than their counterparts in rich areas. According to the WHO Global Status Report on Alcohol (2004), a study conducted in 11 districts of Sri Lanka detected that 7 percent men spent more on alcohol than their income. 

The Chronic Poverty Research Center in its June 2007 publication says, “Apart from the money which is spent on drinks, heavy drinkers often suffer other economic problems such as lower wages and lost employment opportunities, increased medical expenses, and decreased eligibility for development opportunities which are available at local levels.” 

In Nepal, the impact of alcohol abuse includes, to quote CWIN again, the “loss of wealth and indebtedness (27.8 percent), loss of social prestige and bad relationship with neighbors.” I have seen myself many well-to-do families fall into dire poverty, debt and destitution due to alcohol addiction.

People rather wrongly believe that beer and wine are safer than the hard stuff. Dispelling that illusion, the NCADD says,“one 12-ounce beer has about the same amount of alcohol as one 5-ounce glass of wine, or 1.5-ounce shot of liquor. What matters is the amount of alcohol consumed, not the type of alcoholic drink.”

Aware of all this, Nepal’s ruling elite—from the hills and the Tarai—have plied this portentous potion for power play for ages. They have used alcohol to earn money and power and to divide, control and rule the rest. They have prohibited or restricted the use of spirits for their families and castes to retain sobriety. But they have allowed and encouraged liquor for others to earn revenue and profit from the production and sale of bijulipani and to keep them poor, ignorant, and addicted. 

After 1990, I had hoped the democratic vote would empower us, ordinary people, to shift the balance of power in our favor by neutralizing the traditional ruling elite. We could elect our representatives, reelect them if they served us well and fire them if they did not. Unfortunately, we elected in the multiparty system some of the turncoat Panchayatis and many new leaders who came from the same privileged families and reelected them repeatedly, even though they served themselves through corruption and exploitation rather than serving us. 

Then Maoist leaders emerged from the armed insurgency. They also hailed from the same privileged backgrounds as other leaders and yet secured support, through utopian and fraudulent propaganda, from many poor and disadvantaged among us. The 2008 elections catapulted the Maoists into the largest party in the Constituent Assembly. The Maoists led two governments and participated in three out of four in five years, before the apolitical government was formed to organize fresh elections. Once in power, the Maoists too forgot their pledge to the poor and to write a new constitution. 

Rather, the Maoist leaders outdid others in corruption and serving their personal interests and became the fastest-growing arriviste segment. Allegedly, Pushpa Kamal Dahal has become one of the richest persons of Nepal. He lives like a prince in a 150-million-rupee mansion, wears most expensive watches and suits, and rests in inordinately costly hotels and resorts. A picture of two houses—one old and rickety and the other a shining mansion posted in Facebook, allegedly belonging to another Maoist leader Krishna Bahadur Mahara—is telling. It represents the dramatic leap of Maoist leadership from the middle to the upper class in short five years. 

This has been the global pattern for proletariat leaders, though. Lenin, Mao, Ho, Castro and Kim all came from the middle class and led a royal lifestyle once they came to power. Once in the high chair, their class instinct and interest trumped their ideal for classless society. George Orwell rightly said in Animal Farm: Some animals are more equal than others.

Then came the Madhesh movement. It gave rise to several Madheshi parties, which together became the fourth largest political force after the 2008 polls. Leaders of these outfits came from the existing parties with wart and all participated in all four governments. They too became nouveau riche beyond imagination through corruption and exploitation and let their voters and constituencies down. 

Evidently, political changes in Nepal have empowered our leaders, not us voters.Part of the blame for it lies with us. We have elected and reelected most of the same incompetent and corrupt leaders. We have let them believe that they can have our vote through kinship, intimidation, deception and, of course, the bribe of two pegs of liquor and two plates of meat on the eve of elections. No wonder, we have lost control and moral authority over our leaders. Rather they control us. 

Our awareness and self-empowerment can turn it around. We should educate ourselves, build capacity, have jobs, and tap political and economic opportunities. We must use our vote prudently to choose the right leaders and practical policies without succumbing to intimidation,kinship,deceptive propaganda and the lure of booze the next time around.


Published in Republica: http://www.myrepublica.com/portal/index.php?action=news_details&news_id=56246


Published on 2013-06-16 01:05:30

Predators and Prejudice



As a child, I had read a revealing fable. A jackal used to come to a village to steal chicks. If the villagers were not on guard, he would steal the hatchlings quietly. If they were, then he would announce from a hideout that an eagle was about to filch their pets. When the villagers looked to the sky for the eagle, the jackal pilfered their baby birds. 

Some of our leaders have been constantly using the jackal’s trick to advance their petty personal interests. They compromise our independence, misappropriate revenue, and make money from corruption quietly, when possible. Otherwise, they do so by sounding false alarms about and pointing the finger at the eagle—mostly, India—to divert our attention and anger away from them. The controversial installation of Lokman Singh Karki as head of the Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA), apparently made at India’s behest, is one such case. 

Sure, every country tries to protect its national interest, even by waging wars. Nepal has fought two wars with India. India has let anti-establishment Nepali leaders use its soil against Nepal contrary to the 1950 treaty provision and encroached on the border; and it has unilaterally built bunds, on rivers at the border, which inundate our land. The 1965 letter attached to the 1950 treaty and the agreements on Koshi and Gandak water use are unequal; but I don’t know whether India coerced us to sign them, or our leaders did it due to ignorance or to curry personal favor from Delhi.

Due to its security concerns, India wants to have a friendly prime minister, home minister, and home secretary, and chief of the police in Nepal. However, Delhi has no interest in interfering in the appointment of heads of the CIAA, Public Service Commission or Auditor-General’s Office, which are not significant to it. Some analysts have overstretched their imagination to suggest that Karki’s appointment was a step towards Sikkimizing Nepal. Well, if Indians ever decide to absorb Nepal, they will use the passel of loyal political leaders and parties, not the CIAA or Auditor-General’s Office. 

On the contrary, some Nepali leaders and businessmen have—as Mahabir Paudyal has mentioned them a few days ago (Wheeler dealers, May 14, 2013)—had vested interest in Karki’s investiture, for they are allegedly involved in major scandals which the anti-graft body has to tackle. They hope Karki will cover their tracks and their backs in the future. Only time will tell whether Karki obliges them or emulates TN Sheshan, India’s former chief election commissioner, who let his mentors down. 

How does India get dragged in these non-consequential cases? As I have witnessed many times, it works in one of three ways. One, potential beneficiaries—the candidates and other people with vested interests—simply drop India’s name to tilt decisions their way. Two, the beneficiaries request Indian officials for a personal favor. Three, Nepali decision makers suo motu seek Indian officials’ view on key appointments to ingratiate themselves or neutralize opposition parties. 

In the first case, Indian officials come to know about it one only if it spills out in the media. In case two, they mostly ignore the request and occasionally communicate that someone had approached them with such a request. In case three, they say it is Nepal’s decision. Nepali decision makers then interpret and manipulate all this to suit their own interest. If the decision becomes popular, they claim the credit. If it turns controversial, they blame India or some other convenient scapegoat, as they did in Karki’s case.

This is not the first time our leaders have done this. A former Indian ambassador to Nepal bitterly complained to me that when he was serving in Kathmandu Nepali leaders indulged in many filthy things to promote their personal interests and pointed their finger at Delhi to divert public anger away from them. An official from the Indian Ministry of External Affairs in a closed briefing to media people back in April disclosed that Nepali leaders seek to advance only their personal goals, not national interests. 

The charges are not entirely wrong. I have known and witnessed many Nepali leaders implore India for financial support or blessing for a powerful post; scholarship for their children and relatives in Indian educational institutes; and free treatment for them and their family. They criticize Delhi when their demands are rejected. I have also seen that they often blame India to hide their weaknesses or misdeeds. 

One of my friends who used to work with an Indian joint venture bank in Kathmandu tells me that he is disgusted by several leaders who criticize India during the day and visit junior Indian diplomats to collect their paycheck at night. 

Let me cite a few instances, from 1990 onwards, of our leaders blaming India for their misdeeds. Once, Nepali ministers issued a license to a businessman to import a large number of mobile phones at a time when mobile phone service had just been introduced in the country. When Delhi complained about the phones being smuggled to India, our leaders told me and the media that India was interfering in Nepal’s trade and internal affairs. Smuggling is banned by the Nepal-India trade treaty.

In one of the most egregious cases, ministers issued a permit to a trader to import palm oil from Malaysia in huge quantities. In a sample check at the Calcutta port, the oil was found laced with cholesterol, which exists only in animal fat. Because there was excess cholesterol and it was suspected to have come from cows or pigs, India held up the adulterated palm oil. To get the oil released, our ministers assured Indian officials that they would take stern action against the importer and destroy the contaminated oil. 

But no action was taken against the importer and the oil was sold locally and exported as a Nepali product or smuggled to India. So Hindus and Muslims in Nepal consumed some of that oil and their Indian counterparts did the rest, against their faith, without knowing it. When Delhi raised this hypersensitive issue, Nepali ministers sought to foment anti-Indian sentiments.

More recently, one former prime minister, who has made a secret pact with Indian intelligence agencies to attend to Indian concerns in Nepal, excoriated Delhi for intrusion into Nepal’s internal affairs when he, prevented by the President, could not fire an army chief. To justify his government’s poor performance, another former prime minister said the country’s key is in foreign hands. The culture of accountability is alien to most of our leaders. So, the fault always lies with someone else. 

Many of our swivel-eyed leaders have been able to play the trick of the fable’s jackal with us because pro- and anti-Indian rhetoric sells in our political and intellectual market. In some pockets, we buy pro-Indian rhetoric blindly; in others, we procure anti-Indian harangue without a question. So our leaders use this prejudice, as necessary, to fob off their faulty products on us, hide their fraud, compromise our independence, and misappropriate our resources. Occasionally, Indian officials also prime the market, as SD Mehta did for an undivided state in the Tarai. 

Here is the nub: Politics is notorious for passing the buck. Jackals blame eagles to divert attention, as they did in Karki’s case. We must protect our precious chicks—independence, freedom, revenue, development outlays—from both groups of predators. So next time a jackal says an eagle has taken our ear, we must examine its motive and feel our ears before running after the bird of Jove, to preserve our sanity.


 Republica: http://www.myrepublica.com/portal/index.php?action=news_details&news_id=55521  
Published on 2013-06-02 01:09:38