Those who enjoy a drink will always find a reason to grab a bottle on their way back home from work, or make a quick detour to indulge in a peg or two at their favorite bar. Maybe there is something to celebrate—a raise or a praise, or you’ve had a hard day at work. Life is too short to wait for the weekend, isn’t it? With alcohol available anywhere and everywhere—from that innocuous tea shop to your local grocery store, drinking has become normalized. So much so that non-drinkers often find themselves explaining why they don’t drink.
Spokesperson of the Nepal Police, Basanta Bahadur Kunwar, sees the need for urgent regulation of alcohol sales in Nepal. The rampant selling and buying that is the norm today is harmful, leading to many social ills and perpetuating crimes, he says. There are many cases of domestic violence stemming from alcohol abuse, and that’s true in urban areas as well where people are educated and aware. “Something has to be done to limit alcohol consumption. We could start by allowing alcohol to be sold only in special pocket areas,” he says.
Our society has plenty of underlying stressors. Though it would be wrong to pin the blame on alcohol, often, as something that gives you a false sense of control or dampens your senses, it aggravates problems. Pinky Gurung, president of Blue Diamond Society, says many people of her community have attempted suicide after drinking. Just four months ago, a transgender died after drinking alcohol for two weeks straight when her partner left her. Alcohol consumption, Gurung adds, has worsened many people’s physical and mental health.
“It’s no secret that alcohol affects your senses and you are more likely to make rash decisions while drunk. Many times, that has fatal consequences,” says Gurung. Regulations and monitoring of alcohol sales and consumption could potentially save lives and create a safer society. One reason for the government’s failure to make proper rules regarding this is because liquor sales account for 11.8 percent of its direct revenue, says Arun Sigdel, owner of The Sanepa Madira Store, a liquor shop, in Lalitpur. The figure goes up to 34 percent when indirect revenues are added. Nepalis, he says, buy 11,000 liters of alcohol a day (and that is not counting unlicensed sellers and local ‘raksi’).
“The impression our suppliers abroad have is that Nepalis drink a lot. The folks at Johnny Walker are surprised that we consume so much scotch,” he says. The reason for this, he says, is definitely easy availability. The more you drink, the more you want to drink and when there is a store selling liquor right next to your home you will be tempted. Mishlin Gurung, cashier at Green Line Center, another alcohol store, in Kantipath, Kathmandu, says drinking is also trendy among the youth. It’s a fad that doesn’t seem to go out of style. She sees a lot of people in their 20s buying liquor and there is a pattern to it, she says. “They usually drink what everyone else is drinking. The general mindset is that you have to drink to be cool,” she says.
Pooja Thapa, owner of Binayak Liquor Shop in Ekantakuna, Lalitpur, says Nepalis are drinking more than ever before and that the liquor business is a highly profitable one. Though she didn’t disclose how much liquor is sold on a daily basis, she said it was definitely on the higher side. One could say the store has a customer or two at all times. No wonder why new liquor stores have popped up all over Kathmandu. In Ratopul, what used to be a clothes retail shop and a place selling mobile accessories are now fancy liquor stores. Shisir Thapa, founder of Cripa Nepal, an alcohol rehabilitation center, says there was a tea shop near the center that wasn’t doing well but business boomed after it started selling alcohol.
Thapa says Nepalis are at a high risk of alcohol abuse as it is available everywhere and anyone can access it. There is no oversight on who is selling alcohol and who is buying it. This has been creating many problems in our society but the government remains oblivious. “Imagine how bleak the situation is when there are alcohol suppliers right next to a rehabilitation center where people are struggling to overcome alcohol addiction,” he says.
The government had solid plans to curtail alcohol sales and consumption—from maintaining distance between two liquor shops to selling only at fixed hours—but like much else, they have been limited to paper. The only action ever taken was a ban on alcohol advertisement, promotion and sponsorship when the government passed a National Policy on Regulation and Control of Alcohol in 2017.
“Even that one rule hasn’t been followed. You can still see open advertisements of alcohol in the guise of event promotions and such. The government has been negligent in this regard,” says Thapa. Plans to regulate alcohol sales in Nepal never come to fruition because “alcohol in itself is politics,” says Bishnu Sharma, CEO of Recovery Nepal, the umbrella organization of rehabilitation centers in Nepal. Sharma says their repeated lobbying for policies to regulate alcohol sales in Nepal have failed—and how. Manufacturers of liquor have lobbied harder and used their higher-up contacts to foil their efforts. The government, citing high revenue from liquor and tobacco industries, has refused to do anything to curb sales.
Minesh Rajbhandari, co-founder of Cheers, an online liquor store, says there needs to be a proper system to control and monitor alcohol sales. The government shouldn’t be giving out any more licenses and should monitor the ones who are in the business to ensure they aren’t selling to minors or evading taxes. “We could learn a thing or two from how India is managing its liquor industry,” he says.
Our culture promotes drinking and that makes it worse, adds Sharma. He cites a study from Rasuwa district that found that the main cause of abject poverty was alcohol. Every ritual demanded alcohol and people took out hefty loans to provide the same to families and friends. Sharma says his organization ran some programs to change this situation and the results have been positive. What Nepal needs is many more of such interventions. “Our effort in Rasuwa is just a symbolic gesture. The government has to come forward to tackle the social ills brought about by alcohol consumption,” he says.
The state, he believes, is being hypocritical. First it allows people to drink but when there are inevitable brawls and fights and people pass out on the road, they are taken to the station and locked up. Stricter laws and proper enforcement of those laws are what’s needed. “You can’t allow something to thrive like the way it has allowed the liquor industry to and then tell people to be responsible adults,” says Sharma.
Sharma, much like every other person ApEx spoke to, isn’t calling for a blanket ban on alcohol sales and consumption. Everyone thought there were many cultural and religious sentiments to take into consideration but they agreed that we must also think of the cost addiction puts on a nation and its economy. “Alcohol is a part of many cultures and religious festivals but that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be rules to control its use,” says Sharma. “The key here lies in proper regulation and policies to tackle the effects of alcohol abuse.”