Nepal made sweeping regulatory changes in the new ‘National Policy on Regulation and Control of Alcohol 2017’. The Ministry of Health had taken the initiative with the backing of other ministries, child right activists and public health promoters. Ranging from a total ban on alcohol advertisements to more stringent licensing requirements for liquor dispensaries, the goal was to restrict access to alcohol and reduce consumption in the long run. Later, in November 2018, the Home Ministry brought more restrictions and pledged to enforce the existing liquor policy more effectively.
An interesting facet of this policy was the ban on selling liquor by grocery and department stores and the requirement of a specific license to operate liquor shops. This effectively separated the liquor business from general retail shops. But it has created an unexpected scenario, one where the number of liquor stores in some locales has grown exponentially. Pepsicola of Kathmandu (on the way to Bhaktapur) is one such area, where many booze businesses targeting a rapidly increasing population have opened up.
Soni Paudel has run Soni Liquor Store in Pepsicola for over five years. While she is ambivalent about new regulations, she has strong opinion on the opening of new liquor shops. “Many new ones have opened up over the past few years. Five years ago, this area had only two or three. Now they are everywhere,” says Paudel, whose business has slowed down in recent years. She believes this is not because people are drinking less, but are going to the stores closest to them. Paudel has a high number of regulars, so her business hasn’t taken a big hit. But she is certain that not all liquor shop owners have it equally easy.
S.N.G. Dealers is one of the newly-opened stores in the area, just opposite Paudel’s shop. Bishal Khatiwoda started the business three years ago with high expectations, which have not been met. He blames the policy of easy licensing for liquor stores. Says Khatiwoda, “The number of stores has increased—maybe by 50 percent—in the past year, but many have also gone out of business as profit margins have dropped.” Khatiwoda says he currently makes half of what he used to when he opened his store; he believes similar is the case with every other retailer in the area. Business seems to have fallen even though the number of people drinking alcohol has probably increased.
Sun, sin and soakers
Manju Magar has been living in this area for over seven years. She does not mind the increase in the number of liquor stores around her. “I don’t see a problem, maybe because I don’t drink much. This is a pretty affluent area, so you don’t see loafers drinking in the streets and creating a scene,” says Magar. Real-estate prices rose significantly after 2012 when Sun City apartments were built, bringing in well-off families into the previously sparsely inhabited area. As for alcohol-related domestic violence, Magar says she’s unaware of any significant case.
Apart from sales restrictions, Khatiwoda and Paudel, the two retailers, find it difficult to follow some rules. With the minimum drinking age now raised to 21 (from the previous 18), retailers struggle to correctly identify someone’s age without a valid ID card. “It’s not practical to ask for identification if a customer’s age is not clear from their face,” says Paudel. She believes it will hurt her business and will not prevent underage drinking, as people under 21 can easily go to some other shop that does not ask for identification.
Says Khatiwoda, “When those under 21 come here to buy alcohol, you can’t be sure if they’re getting it for their parents or for themselves.” Both he and Paudel think people sending their children to buy liquor is a problem and wish parents were more aware. “Whenever kids come to buy drinks or cigarettes, I always ask them to send their parents,” adds Khatiwoda.
S.N.G. Dealers and Soni Liquor Store fall under the jurisdiction of Inspector Sudhir Rai at the Kadhaghari Police Department. He admits a large number of liquor stores have opened up under his watch in recent years. “Demand for alcohol is rising and liquor stores and bhattis (local bars) are opening up at an alarming pace. Our culture’s perception of alcohol is twisted; we consider it essential for celebrations. But in the past few years, it has become a problem.”
Plethora of problems
Excessive alcohol consumption can lead to disorderly conduct and even societal ills; it is considered one of the main culprits of domestic violence. According to a report by Women and Children Service Center (WCSC) of the Nepal Police, one third of all domestic violence cases reported last year in Kathmandu were alcohol related. “Obviously, crime has increased in line with alcohol consumption. Domestic abuse, child abuse, petty crimes, gang violence and particularly vehicular accidents are increasing and alcohol is often involved,” Rai adds. He believes alcohol’s cultural acceptance makes it a gateway to harder drugs.
Apart from social ills, excessive and regular consumption of alcohol can have adverse health effects. Apart from liver disease, pancreatitis, ulcers and gastrointestinal problems, excessive drinking can even lead to brain damage, especially in people who begin drinking before 24. Dr. Santosh Pokhrel works as a general physician at Saadhak Polyclinic, Pepsicola. He says the number of locals seeking treatment for alcohol-related ailments is rapidly increasing. “I’ve noticed people, mostly those between 25 and 40, increasingly affected by ailments like Alcohol Liver Disease,” says Pokhrel. As if to lend credence to the doctor’s claim, an obviously drunk middle-aged man reeking of local rakshi staggers into the clinic and starts pestering the receptionist to measure his blood sugar level.
Although the government is taking steps to curb excessive drinking, its policies seem short-sighted and have ironically given people even easier access to alcohol. And the rules are also being flouted openly. Though the policy caps the number of liquor stores in a ward at five, there are a lot more in some locales. In a kilometer-long stretch in Suncity, Pepsicola, there are nine liquor stores, six of which opened within the past three years.
In the same stretch, nearly a third of kirana pasals, none of whose owners were willing to be identified, admitted to stocking liquor in low quantities. Says Inspector Rai, “Although there is a cap on the number of liquor stores in an area, we have not been asked to enforce it by higher authorities.” He also blames lack of coordination between the license distributors and the local police for the gap between policy and implementation.
For now, new liquor stores keep sprouting up largely because licenses are easy to get and the government does not enforce its capping policy. How long these businesses can stay afloat amid cut-throat competition is another matter altogether. As far as their impact on the society is concerned, it is subtle but perhaps grievously harmful in the long term.