The patiala peg, for all that it’s worth, seems humbler after the World Health Organisation’s Global Status Report on Alcohol 2004 has been made public. It turns out that Indians are not heavy drinkers — each Indian consuming 0.86 litres of pure alcohol a year. This puts our standing on the hic list at a dry 150 among 184 nations. Right on top is Uganda, with an average consumption of 19.5 litres followed by European nations such as Luxembourg, the Czech Republic and Ireland. One would have thought that Johnny Walker — the comedian who played the perennial drunkard despite being a teetotaller in real life — would have some effect in the Mahatma’s land.
For those tippling enthusiasts who protest against the WHO findings by stating that the report does not record consumption of ‘traditional’ alcoholic beverages — the staple for most Indians who drink — here’s a sobering thought: even including that genre of ethanol, we still don’t make it to the top 100 on the booze list. But before you want to drown this sorrow in fruit juice, it would be wise to consider that out of our large adult population, a considerable lot don’t drink. Add to this the very real taboo of drinking in our culture, and we could be staring at many teetotallers — or closet tipplers who won’t say not only how much they drink but whether they drink at all — dragging the national average down.
But is the fact that we lie just above Solomon Islands and below Turkmenistan in the Drinking Nation list such a bad thing? Six nations are officially alcohol-free — Iran, Kuwait, Libya. Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Bangladesh. A developed and safe democratic country like New Zealand is 123 rungs above us (9.79 litres). Is there a correlation between alcohol consumption and progress? Or between abstinence and regression? The answer may lie in how a society defines ‘conspicuous consumption’.