Alcohol is a problem in Bhutan. This has long been recognised and everybody agrees. What we have not recognised or consented to is the need for stringent regulations or legislation to curb both production and consumption.
In the meantime, we are watching the rate of people dying from alcohol-related diseases or accidents increase, right under our nose. It has now become a cliché to say that alcohol is the biggest killer in Bhutan. Unfortunately, it stops there.
In the last many years, since we identified alcohol as a social issue, we have seen our per capita consumption surpass the world average by two litres. The economic burden has doubled, even tripled and there are no Bhutanese who haven’t lost a family member, a friend or a relative that succumbed to alcohol related problems.
But somehow our policy makers are finding it too complex to put in place legislations or implement them. Everybody agrees alcohol is bad – bad for health, wealth and for society. Yet we cannot progress to find a lasting solution.
Any elected government that dares to come with a strong legislation will be remembered for doing its people a favour. In the short run, they would have to face the wrath of the manufacturers, if it curbs production, a huge section of the public, if it curbs consumption. It is here that government has to be bold.
In the long run, children will thank the government for not having to see their parents fight every night, parents, teachers, and society will thank the government for getting rid of a social ill, and transforming people into productive citizens.
There are enough reasons backed by statistics to make this a top priority for any government. We have more bars than playgrounds, though we tell our children to engage in sports. There is not even one library for 100 bars. Dry days are as wet as any other day, and we boast of easy access to cheap booze.
The health ministry is overwhelmed, both in terms of treating people with alcohol-related diseases and the cost incurred in treating them. Every year, millions of ngultrums are spent on referring patients to India. This is not in recent years. It was long recognised, but even the ministry couldn’t convince others.
Away from the capital, the issue is even worse. If villagers are getting sick, they are wasting food grain, as the little they harvest is use to brew alcohol. Most villages are not food self-sufficient, but have alcohol most of the time.
Bhutanese wisdom has it that brewing alcohol from food grains is sinful. This is a pragmatic wisdom, because it discourages wastage of food grain, so that people are not wasted. Local governments, which know best the ground reality, are finding their initiatives conflicting with those of the central government. This will discourage them from taking initiatives, even if it is with the noblest of intentions.
Alcohol is a problem in many societies. It is a question of how serious it is. In Bhutan, it is a grave problem. It is high time to do something if we are not late already. A strong will is a good start.