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Liquor is the lifeblood of India's Kerala state

KOCHI, India — It's early on a weekday afternoon and the Mullapnathal shop in southern India's Kerala state is doing a roaring trade in toddy, the local palm wine. Drinkers are pounding them down while munching on "rabbit fry," a favorite unlikely to give McDonald's sleepless nights any time soon.

Several men at a table in the run-down room call loudly for another round of the 8%-alcohol concoction.

"Toddy is a part of our culture," said Ramakrishnan, 46, a day laborer dressed in a sarong-like dhoti, who uses one name. "Compared with other alcoholic drinks, it doesn't have any side effects."

Laid-back Kerala, with its swaying palms, ancient culture and well-educated people, promotes itself to visitors as "God's own country," but some say the god of choice is Bacchus, the Roman deity of wine.

The state has the nation's highest per-capita consumption of toddy, wine, hard liquor and other varieties of booze, at seven quarts of pure alcohol annually, according to government figures. Although that's less than America's 10 quarts and Russia's 17, according to the World Health Organization, it's nearly double India's national average.

Theories differ on why Kerala holds this dubious record. Some cite a well-educated population battling unemployment, others social pressure and a forgiving tropical climate.

"For me, toddy friendship is what it's all about," said Kumaran, 58, a day laborer and Ramakrishnan's friend. "There's nothing I can't discuss with my toddy buddies."

The exact origin of Kerala's toddy culture is lost in an alcoholic fog, but 18th century accounts tell of workers and landowners sharing a drink after work — unthinkable in more caste-bound regions — and getting sloshed together during major religious festivals. A century later, one historical record speaks of rich landowners "debauched and irregular in their habits and prone to eating [meat] and drinking strong liquors."

The Kerala government may also play a role: It earns big money from its wholesale alcohol monopoly, which delivers 20% of the state's tax revenue, a situation that doesn't exactly encourage responsible drinking, critics say. Each of the state's 384 liquor stores — easily identified by the long line of scraggly men out front — serves on average 230 customers an hour, 11 hours a days, seven days a week. The state also supplies 700 privately owned bars and 5,000 toddy shops.

But this river of money hides a big downside, critics say. Alcohol abuse is linked to 44% of Kerala's road accidents, 19% of government hospital stays and 80% of divorces, said Johnson J. Edayaranmula, director of Thiruvananthapuram's Alcohol and Drug Information Center, a civic group.

"Alcohol is clearly a major problem," he said.

Members of the local Alcoholics Anonymous chapter agree.

"Booze, especially toddy, is an inseparable part of every Kerala social gathering," said a 44-year-old advertising executive at an AA meeting who didn't give his name, in keeping with group rules. "Every day, people around here try and push the hooch on you."

Those in favor of moderation risk a backlash. When the Kerala High Court proposed last fall that bars remain closed until the workday ends at 5 p.m., critics slammed the idea as an affront to local culture. Their view prevailed, and bars remain open from 9 a.m. to midnight. Before 2010, they opened at 6 a.m.

In response to concern that alcohol breeds social ills, Kerala State Beverages Corp., the monopoly wholesaler, recently launched a $1-million "drink responsibly" campaign and plans to open an alcohol treatment hospital.

Critics say such moves are absurd.

"On the one hand you give the liquor out, on the other hand you say, 'We'll treat you,'" Edayaranmula said. "It's a farce."

S. Jogesh, the corporation's managing director, said through a spokesman that Kerala was getting a bad rap. Although liquor consumption grew by 16% in 2010-11, that can be explained by legal liquor sales muscling out illegal liquor that sometimes kills people, he said, and demand has recently flattened.

The $1 million spent annually on alcohol moderation programs reflects the company's social responsibility mission, he said, although he acknowledged that critics have a point.

"It's definitely contradictory," Jogesh said through the spokesman. "It's like when you look at the petroleum industry spoiling the environment but helping out with green projects. Wherever we go, we want to make people drink."

Kerala state's dependence on alcohol revenue echoes the British colonial era, said Dilip Menon, a professor at South Africa's University of the Witwatersrand who has studied the issue. In the late 19th century, imperial rulers sharply raised toddy taxes, encouraging people to switch to more addictive, higher-octane and also highly taxed arrack, a distilled 34-proof brew made from fruit or grain, which stuffed state coffers and spurred alcoholism.

Various temperance movements have tried to turn back the tide of booze swamping Kerala, Menon said, only to fall short in the face of people's powerful thirst.

Dr. S.D. Singh, a Kochi-based psychiatrist who treats alcoholic patients, said pleasure-seeking Kerala citizens too often equate binge drinking with personal fulfillment. And society often encourages high consumption through cultural, political and economic policies. In the medical and insurance fields, for instance, doctors frequently issue a diagnosis of heart disease or cirrhosis of the liver when the core problem is alcohol abuse, largely because insurance companies don't cover alcoholism, he said.

"I'll diagnose alcohol dependency, and the patient will plead with me to change it," he said. "I may become slightly unpopular. But in the long term, family members support me."

Alcohol has long enjoyed a prominent role in Kerala's culture and the real lives of local luminaries. These include movie director John Abraham, who fell off a building and died after reportedly having one too many, and self-proclaimed "poet from the gutter" A. Ayyappan, who roamed the streets inebriated, sleeping at bus stops. He died after he was found unconscious near some railroad tracks.

Indian archaeologists note that references to alcohol date back at least 4,000 years, while passages in the Vedas, or Hindu scriptures, written around 1500 BC refer to sura, a country liquor. By the time of Jesus, prosperous traders in what is now Kerala were importing wine from Rome.

In Kerala today, drinkers have found their champion in Balakrishnan, 70, an actor in about 200 films, who founded the pro-drinking group Forum for Better Spirit in 1983.

Balakrishnan, who says he took his first drink at age 4, argues that restrictions on alcohol create more problems than they solve, such as a 1996 state ban on arrack that only encouraged people to drink harder liquor.

And so his group's manifesto raises a glass to the experienced inebriate, calling for subsidized alcohol prices for the elderly and free booze for drinkers older than 90.

mark.magnier@latimes.com

Tanvi Sharma in The Times' New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.

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