One of the takeaways in the recent announcement about the Manipur Cabinet decision regarding partial lifting of prohibition is that local liquor will be manufactured and sold outside the state. Another inference is that Indian-made foreign liquor (IMFL) will be brought from outside the state and sold in Greater Imphal area and district headquarters and it will be allowed to be served in hotels with not less than 20 beds (The reference to restaurant was omitted here as restaurant do not have beds and is a place where people pay to sit and eat meals that are cooked and served on the premises; so much for the microscopic examination).
There are continuous claims from a few leaders that imbibing regularly liquor produced locally leads to liver cirrhosis inferring that imbibing IMFL will make one free from this health problem. Nothing is further from the truth.
Long-term liquor consumption, whether genuine or spurious, will lead to fatty liver and other health problems like hypertension, heart disease, stroke, digestive problems, weakening of the immune system, cancer of the breast, mouth, throat, oesophagus, liver, colon and rectum, mental health issues, including anxiety and depression, social problems like family and job related ones.
Temporary effects of drinking includes feeling of relaxation or drowsiness, sense of euphoria or giddiness, mood change, less inhibition, impulsive behaviour, slurred speech, nausea and vomiting, diarrhoea, pain in the head, altered hearing, vision and perception, loss of coordination, poor in focusing and in taking decision and blackouts. Some of these changes may not come at a time and some may come faster than others.
The problem with spurious liquor is if it is laced with methyl alcohol death may come in a short time. Although small amounts may not cause immediate death, various organs especially liver will be severely affected.
A state minister claims that the decision is based on the impact on the health of the imbibers and not on the likely windfall on taxes, and there will be no going back as the matter was examined microscopically. He also requested those opposing to come and discuss the matter.
Women folks are up in arms saying over our dead bodies, while CADA says only after a white paper is brought out will there be a discussion.
One can say that the battle lines are drawn, but the question is why did the government not consult those supporting prohibition before the decision was taken?
The invitation for talks looks like an afterthought, when the opposition is found too strong while earlier perhaps it was thought that the decision can be bulldozed.
Major decision should have been taken after consultation of all stakeholders.
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One report which came out in a local daily by way of a leak from the Food Safety Unit (FSU), under Medical Directorate, states that most of the locally manufactured liquors are substandard. It claimed that the alcohol content, volatile acids, total ester, and total aldehyde are much higher than the standard prescribed by FSSAI, while the residue percentage is within the prescribed limit, except for well packed liquors from Andro which fulfils all parameters.
Most of the beautifully bottled liquor sold at a premium in the sly is all produced locally. There is also an observation that higher adulterants may be due to the manufacturing process using aluminium utensils and plastic pipes.
One is a bit suspicious about the timing of the leak. Why had the FSU not conducted such test earlier or if done why was proper report not released and only leaked to the press after the announcement of the Cabinet decision?
The procedure of sample collection is unscientific and those samples which have low alcohol content are those mixed with water for retail. Samples should have been collected from the manufacturers directly as well as at the retail interface so that the stage of adulteration, if any, can be identified.
Yangli is added in manufacturing local liquor and it contains saponins and perhaps alkaloids which gives the unique flavour to the local brew, like absinthe, which uses not only anise and fennel but wormwood (Artemesia absinthium).
The leak is also selective in that all the parameters prescribed by FSSAI for Country Liquor under which category our local liquor comes under have either not been tested or if tested, the findings not divulged.
Only ethyl alcohol percentage, residue, volatile acid, total ester and aldehydes were mentioned while higher alcohols, methyl alcohol, furfural, Ar, Cd, Cu, Pb, and Hg were not included.
It would be proper if it is clarified whether facilities to test these parameters are available and tested or if available not tested or the facility is just not available.
Most of the organic compounds which are adulterants were by-products during the production of liquor; during fermentation and distillation stage. The contents are minutes, though some of the adulterants can have serious side effects if consumed or exposed at a higher dosage.
High volatile acid as acetic acid should not be much of a health concern as acetic acid is consumed as vinegar. Low quantity of higher alcohol is considered necessary as exposure to amyl alcohol can lead to headache, dizziness, light-headedness and passing out. So is the case with methyl alcohol.
Short-term effect of furfural exposure can irritate the nose and throat, including shortness of breath. Aldehydes are reactive compounds and generally toxic and is reported to have cytotoxic, mutagenic, genotoxic and carcinogenic effects. The presence of the elements can be from the raw material or from the water used during the manufacturing process.
It is the responsibility of the FSU to conduct similar tests on the IMFL brought from outside, especially those bottled in Kharkati as mere claim that the liquor is manufactured by a licensed firm does not necessarily mean it must be trusted. There can be batches which do not fulfil the conditions or there may be large quantity of spurious products in the market.
The leak of selective data now is undesirable, as it can lead to the erroneous inference that locally brewed liquor sold in plastic bags is bad for health while properly bottled ones are good. The corollary will be to ban sale of all loosely packed liquor and only permit those which are properly bottled. As mentioned earlier, the timing of the leak as well as the parameters leaked makes it highly suspicious.
In Japan and Korea, sake and soju produced by traditional brewers cost much more than those manufactured industrially. In Manipur also, stainless steel utensils may be used as also the quality of the water by the traditional manufacturers checked regularly.
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Yangli must continue to be used as it gives the distinctive character of the local liquor.
However, hamei may have to be substituted by high quality brewer yeast for a standard product but this requires experimentation. Brewer yeast generally becomes inactive when the alcohol content reaches 12-15 per cnet but strains are bred which is active till the alcohol content reaches 21 per cent. There are now strains which produces alcohol of the strength, ranging from five per cent to 21 per cent.
In an industrial set up, hamei cannot be used as it cannot produce standard product. If the government desires to regulate liquor, there must be a proper liquor policy which must be prepared and debated before the notification under the Proviso to sub-section (2) of section 1 of the Manipur Liquor Prohibition Act, 1991 is issued.
A draft policy should be the basis of discussion with those supporting prohibition.
From the leaks and other claims, there is a concern that the traditional brewers will be eased out on the ground that their products are not in consonance with the stipulations laid down by FSSAI.
The support of the Chakpas of Andro to the proposed lifting of prohibition may be too early as it may be a double-edged sword for them and other traditional brewers, with them being eased out from the business and replaced by moneyed people who run industrial units as happened in many fields (An example is power looms replacing traditional handloom in producing daily wear phaneks, though in this case most of the entrepreneurs are former traditional handloom weavers, but a time may come when they are also eased out).
In fact, brands by the name of the locality like Andro, Sekmai, Phayeng, Leimaram etc must not be allowed to be used for industrial products. It must be realised that the partial lifting is not on account of the love of the traditional brewers but due to lobbying by those who want to produce and sell local liquor outside the state and if possible within the state.
The traditional brewers must also understand that there are prescribed parameters for country liquor and improve the quality of their products, using proper hygiene and utensils. It must be realised that government industrial policies tend to favour the rich and not the poor.
(The views expressed are the writer's own)