This past week, the tipplers’ virtual-paradise came to an end.
For more than a year, a Facebook page called GNPC (Glassile Nurayum Plateile Curryum), translated as fizz in the glass, curry in the plate, served as a popular hangout spot on social media for Kerala’s tech-savvy tipplers. Although it began as a group where participants could share enthusiastic stories of their favourite local cuisine and drinks, it gradually transformed into a hub where conversations centred mostly around alcohol and valiant ‘drunken’ tales.
In a state which records annual liquor sales of over Rs 12000 crore, the GNPC page on Facebook grew out of proportion in no time, garnering nearly 17 lakh members and glorifying the habit of drinking along the way.
This past week, the tipplers’ virtual-paradise came to an end when the state’s excise department shut down the Facebook page and carried raids at the home of its main administrator. When the cops went searching for the page’s creators, who are still on the run, they stumbled upon something bigger.
“When we conducted a raid on the house of Ajith Kumar and his wife, we found that he was illegally selling liquor by issuing tickets. He was violating provisions of the Abkari Act. So we have filed a crime occurrence report in court and are searching for him and other administrators,” said G Muraleedharan Nair, divisional deputy excise commissioner, in charge of Thiruvananthapuram district. “We took a suo motu case against the group for encouraging alcoholism,” he added.
However, the excise department’s tough action on the group has not gone down well with its lakhs of members who have now spawned similar groups all over Facebook. At first glance, there are at least six public groups with similar names which each have more than a 1000 members each. Additionally, there are smaller groups, seen as district branches like ‘GNPC Pathanamthitta’ and ‘GNPC Alappuzha’, which have membership in their hundreds. In most of these groups, the reactions, an outcome of the blocking of the parent GNPC page, are aimed at one entity: the excise department of the government.
One such post in Malayalam is translated as, “Ban poisoned drinking water. Ban poisoned masala powders. Ban poisoned coconut oil. Ban poisoned rice. Shut down the beverage shops selling alcohol. Shut down bars selling alcohol. Government, then come to shut down GNPC.”
Another post, mocking the excise department, as a conversation between two women, reads, “(They) are saying GNPC is encouraging alcoholism. Says who? The excise department which reopened all the closed bars.”
When informed about the several new pages in place of the parent GNPC page, a top excise official said, “It looks like they are very angry with us. We will have to figure out ways with the cyber police to shut these pages down.”
In many of these pages, the same routine posts, seen earlier, repeated themselves. There were Facebook Live videos of people pouring drinks into their glasses accompanied by fits of laughter as if they cared little about the administration. There were also photographs of neatly-arranged bottles of vodka and rum and brandy and whisky on tables surrounded by delighted youngsters. In short, everything that flowed through the parent GNPC page continued to flow through these pages as well.
Dr Johnson, who works part-time at an alcohol de-addiction centre in Kochi, says the move to shut down the page was praiseworthy but in reality does little to inhibit the craze for drinking especially among youngsters.
“Through Facebook pages like these, the younger generation is getting attracted to alcoholism. They see their friends posting photos, so they get inspired too. What used to be consumed privately in Kerala is today being done in the open,” he said.
“But frankly, closing a Facebook page down will not solve the crisis. The government does not have the ‘iccha-shakti’ (determination) to take strong measures against this. On one side, they are telling people not to drink. On the other, they want to pour as much liquor as possible. The government has to limit the supply of liquor,” added Dr Johnson.
Though the previous Congress-led UDF government shut down hundreds of bars as part of its attempts to impose prohibition in the state, the present government led by Pinarayi Vijayan made it clear that it was in favour of voluntary abstinence. Having seen the impact of the closing of bars on the state’s tourism industry, the LDF government allowed three-star and four-star hotels to get bar licenses, making a significant change in the state’s liquor policy. It, however, raised the drinking age from 21 to 23.
The results were there for everyone to see. The state-run Kerala State Beverage Corporation (KSBC), which has a monopoly on liquor sale and trade through its 330 retail outlets in the state, registered thumping profits last year especially during the Onam and Christmas-New Year seasons. In just four days leading up to Christmas last year, Malayalis drank alcohol worth Rs 160 crore. “Every year, sales have been going up. This year, we have been able to record a growth of 10-12% over the past year,” a top BEVCO official said then.