No booze, no blues, fewer bruises!

Ever since humans learnt the art and science of brewing alcoholic beverages, the regulation and consumption of alcohol has troubled communities, governments and people the world over. There are people who like to consume the occasional glass of alcohol as it relaxes them, while there are others who become addicted and pay a price with their health or worse their own lives and that of others. Alcohol has been linked to a range of diseases. It also has a strong correlation with a number of social evils. It is not surprising that many religions have strict rules regarding the consumption of alcohol. Similarly, alcohol is strictly regulated and heavily taxed in many countries.

In this context, we have had an interesting experiment in Ladakh over the last few months. Alcohol has not been available in markets across Ladakh for four months now and nothing has happened! Nothing happened in two aspects. No one, or at least a majority of the people, did not feel like they were lacking something and secondly, there have been fewer road accidents and violence in this period. The sale of alcohol in Ladakh has stopped for some time now and it is still not being sold. It was also not available in army stores and canteens. Ladakh has been on abstinence during this period.

In many ways, Ladakh has been like several states in India especially Bihar, Gujarat, Nagaland and Mizoram: The government in each of these states has banned the sale of alcohol. Bihar banned production, sale, storage and transportation of alcohol on its soil in a major policy shift in 2016 in an effort to create a society where every woman finds solace and safety in her home and community without having to deal with the spectre of domestic violence. This happened at a time when Bihar was the sixth largest consumer of alcohol in the country.

While in many states alcohol has been formally banned, this is not the case in Ladakh, especially Leh. There have been plans to make alcohol more easily accessible by giving licences for bars and restaurants. However, civil society organisations, especially women’s group, objected to this and as a result very few bars have come up so far. Alcohol remains a luxury. It is something we can live without. There is a minimum legal age for the consumption of alcohol. At 18 years, Ladakh and Goa have the lowest minimum legal age for alcohol consumption. In states such as Delhi, Punjab and Maharashtra only people above the age of 25 years are allowed to buy or consume alcohol.

I have heard various arguments in favour of making alcohol more easily available in Ladakh. One such argument is that Ladakh is a popular tourist destination and so alcohol should not be banned in the region. This is rather interesting for the simple reason that alcohol should not be consumed at high altitudes especially by someone who is not acclimatised. Alcohol generally increases urine output, which means it reduces fluids in the body unless it is constantly replenished. This means that alcohol consumption reduces the body’s capacity to acclimatise to high altitude conditions and increases risks of various altitude-related diseases.

In addition, alcohol causes respiratory depression and can depress the respiratory drive necessary for acclimatisation. Some people believe that it is good for a cold area as it warms the body. However, it actually has the opposite effect even though it gives the consumer a warm feeling. We have often seen people dying due to hypothermia after consuming a large amount of alcohol as they become unaware of the cold and die in their sleep. In emergency rooms at hospitals, doctors often smell the victims of road accidents or any other unconscious person to check for the smell of alcohol as drunk driving is a major cause of road accidents.

As I was thinking about all this, I was struck by the fact that we are never satisfied with how much we have of certain things in our lives. One example of this is the number of tourists visiting Ladakh. There was a time when 50,000 tourists in a year was a very large number. In the period after COVID-19 pandemic, there have been years in which over 500,000 tourists have visited Ladakh. Despite this, many people related to the tourism sector continued to argue for the need to find new ways to attract more tourists to Ladakh. We may agree or disagree with this proposition but we do need to weigh in various factors in determining how much is enough. That said, in my opinion making alcohol freely available cannot be justified in the name of promoting tourism or generating revenue for Ladakh or any other region. Ladakh has many other things to offer to tourists.

I had posted my views on social media about how alcohol was not available in Ladakh and that no one seemed to have a problem with it. Among the various responses I received was one from a person who frequently uses proverbs in daily conversations. The person used a Ladakhi proverb to make a point and said, “Sha dang mar la lhak milus!”Proverbs are a window into a society and its values, beliefs and wisdom. They often give us practical advice on various aspects of life. In this regard, I find Ladakhi proverbs to be very insightful as they have developed over several generations and encapsulates their collective experiences and norms. This means that proverbs are often open to multiple interpretations based on context and perspective. This proverb too can be interpreted in a number of different ways. “Sha dang mar la lhak milus!” roughly translates to, “Meat and butter have no leftovers!” one interpretation is that there will never be enough of food items such as meat and butter. This is interesting. Meat and butter are food items that are not essential and we can live without consuming them. They are food items that we tend to consume in large quantity when we have more resources available. This is also true for alcohol, which is something we can live without. “Sha dang mar la lhak milus” in a way describes how our desires, yearnings, wishes for some things never wane. It speaks about how there are some appetites that are never whetted or satisfied. Some yearnings never subside. Some needs never diminish .And yes, some things are never enough!

By Dr. Spalchen Gonbo

Dr Spalchen Gonbo is a Paediatrician based in Ladakh.

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