How parents and peers influence alcohol consumption in India

As Delhi lowers the legal age to consume alcohol, we explore how peers and parents influence the decision of when to start drinking

Sonia Sharma*, from Delhi finds the Government’s decision to lower the legal age of drinking from 25 to 21 amusing.

She began throwing her son parties with alcohol when he was in school, because when she did not, he would not be invited to other students’ gatherings. Children, she says, sometimes begin drinking as early as 14, often encouraged by the parents. This is in Delhi’s elite (expensive for most) schools, where the teen years are no longer about pizzas and French fries, but about beer and vodka shots.

Age no bar

“If you do throw a party without alcohol, children either will not show up or will carry clear water bottles with alcohol inside,” says the mother who does not drink herself; nor does her partner. She is aware that under age drinking carries risks of alcohol dependence.

This is however, reflective of a larger social and cultural landscape, where drinking is seen as a ticket to be a part of a ‘club’ of networked teens from across Delhi’s schools. It is not just a gathering of boys and girls over-eager to enter an adult world early. The children will later apply to universities abroad and connect there, “always having each others’ back,” says Sharma.

When parents support at-home drinking, there is really no need for children to go to a liquor store or even a bar, where they may be asked for ID.

Surjit Singh*, who studies in a college in Bengaluru, after having grown up in Delhi, says the thekas (liquor shops) in the capital usually check for ID, unlike those in Bengaluru (Karnataka’s drinking age is 21).

“In Bangalore, the police will do spot checks on the road at night, asking us to open our bags to see if we’re carrying alcohol. This doesn’t usually happen in Delhi,” says the 19-year-old. He and his friends also encounter less checking during the matinee hours than at night, in Bengaluru pubs. “In Delhi, it’s easier to drink at home.”

Many parents either turn a blind eye to the drinking or actively support it, because they want their children to be safe at home rather than drinking on the streets.

Drinking culture

“Delhi still does not have a post work drinking culture, where people catch a quick drink after work, and then head home,” says Madhav Dayal, referring to the drinking culture in Europe. He grew up in Delhi, trained as a chef, and then moved to Goa to start Miguel’s: Cocktails & Petiscos.

In Delhi, he says it’s still about binge drinking and often, hiding in cars or parks with a bottle. He remembers doing this, only to be caught by his mother who told him to drink at home.

Goa, on the other hand, has a laidback drinking culture, where people may have a drink with their food or catch up with each other over a beer — even at the youngest allowed drinking age, 18 in the State.

He too feels lowering the official drinking age will not change much for teens and those in their early 20s. Instead, he hopes that it will create more safe spaces for alcohol consumption. If people can’t drink at home, at least they will have places to go out to, where they may be more exposed to drinking etiquette.

Lt Col Sameer Khare, who served in the Army for 20 years and now works in the IT sector, talks of the culture in the Army. Young single officers, often in their 20s, dining in the mess would dress for dinner (“You can’t wear jeans or sandals”), and go to the bar or the ante room at about 7.30 pm and have a drink or two. “It’s part of the regimental culture,” he says, adding that it is about camaraderie, not getting drunk.

He hopes that he will be able to introduce his own daughter, who will turn 18 soon, to alcohol after 21, when they can sit down and share a drink, rather than throwing her a party with a bunch of friends. Maharashtra, where he and his family live, has a differentiated age — 21 for beer and wine, 25 for hard liquor.

“Right now she’ll have some Baileys over her ice cream, but if she feels she wants a sip, I’m happy to let her try it,” he says.

Saying no to alcohol

Alcohol in India is on the State list, meaning revenue comes from this into the State. Most states have 21 as the legal drinking age; Sikkim, Rajasthan, and Andhra Pradesh are at 18. In Haryana and Punjab, the legal age is 25. A few, like Gujarat, Bihar, and Manipur prohibit its sale and consumption.

S Srinivasa Raghavan, advocate with the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court, calls this variance “absolutely absurd”. “Ideally, there should be prohibition, but I understand that’s utopian,” he says.

He wishes alcohol would be a part of the concurrent list, so both the State and Centre can make laws pertaining to it. He would like to see the age frozen at 25 and the State take a sterner view with implementation. “Daughters or sons cannot be in their parents’ control after they leave home to stay in a hostel, so this is where the State comes in.”

He too was a social drinker, but at 37, when his daughter turned nine, he decided to give it up. “I have explained to her how it affects both mental and physical health,” he says.

To educate her on its ill-effects, he took her to a de-addiction centre and also showed her Crime Bureau reports. “Barriers come down with drinking,” he says, citing alcohol-related crime as a cause for concern.

There are also the unhealthy habits, like binge eating, and dangerous behaviours, like driving after, that go along with drinking.

S Mukesh Bala, a marine engineer from Chennai, agrees with Tamil Nadu’s legal age set at 21. “The restriction keeps drinking in check. For example, the legal age to drive is 18, and there will be a few people who drive before that, but fear will prevent many,” he says, adding that it is important for the law to be implemented.

Aware of teens drinking at 13 and 14, he points not to drinking itself, but other factors that have thrown the lives of students into dis-balance: the amount of money that is available to some teens enables them to buy alcohol regularly, for instance. He cites balancing factors, like family.

“How many people actually sit and have a meal with their family daily without touching the mobile phone?” he asks. Drinking responsibly then is about balance — the ability to step out for the occasional drink with friends, but not making it a daily habit, or a crutch.

Is the State even a player then, in how citizens drink? They could be, to some extent, if they implement the law in public places. In private spaces, it is really upto those over the drinking age to regulate.

*Names changed to protect identity

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