Temperance times

As women voters force states to go dry, let us debate the pros and cons of prohibition

ashishm

Ashish Mehta | June 17, 2016 | New Delhi


#Booze Ban   #Nitish Kumar   #Jayalalithaa   #Kerala   #Tamil Nadu   #Narendra Modi   #Gujarat   #Alcohol   #Liquor Ban   #Bihar  


Prohibition in Gujarat is of course a joke. There are days – national holidays, religious festivals – when a regular consumer would have a hard time buying it in Delhi or Mumbai, but his Ahmedabadi counterpart faces no such problems on Gandhi Jayanti or the Independence Day.

Many – even children – know (we did) what signs to look out for if the illegal liquor den was open or not: a lamp lighted at a roadside makeshift temple near the entrance of the lane, for example. The only problem was that the consumer had little choice when it came to the type of liquor and brands. That is not the case now, better informed friends say, and the home delivery service is available through SMS. Drinkers from other parts of India can only envy Gujaratis.

But the Gujarat model is becoming popular. Women voters are becoming more and more crucial for winning elections. That was what the post-poll statistical analysis revealed in case of Bihar as well as Tamil Nadu. What women want is driving the governance agenda. And they definitely want prohibition, after years of getting beaten up every night and being left with no money to run the household.

As ground reports from Bihar, Kerala and Tamil Nadu in the following pages reveal, not only women but many addicts too are happy to have found a way to quit, even if it was forced on them.

READ | “Those who sold liquor will now sell milk in Bihar"

Of course, the prohibition movement seems limited to only a few states today, and there are no signs of any demand for booze ban in states like Maharashtra. Among the states now readying to go to polls, Punjab is grappling with such insidious intoxicants that alcohol seems positively harmless. Yet, after the recent examples of the few states, prohibition should be a topic of wider debate now.

There are enough arguments on both sides.

In Bihar, people allege that when the previous Nitish Kumar government itself had issued countless liquor shop licences, banning them now is nothing short of political opportunism. As Tamil Nadu makes it clear, voters themselves are not convinced if the phased implementation will continue beyond the first step – since the state has seen years of prohibition and relaxation, like a typical alcoholic who decides to quit, only to take it up again the next day. In Kerala, clarity is yet to emerge, especially after the regime change.

The second argument, as explained in detail in the article, ‘Why prohibition does not make economic sense’ (see pages 38-39), is more concrete: the states have become more and more dependent on the money earned from various taxes on alcohol. Like tobacco, this is a commodity whose demand is largely ‘inelastic’ (that is, the price increase will not reduce its demand). The state’s income of course funds a slew of development works and welfare schemes.

The third argument comes from recurrent hooch tragedies. When alcohol is not available, an underground market opens up for illicit and poor-quality liquor, which routinely leads to countless deaths. A related argument is that banishing a thing like liquor is next to impossible and it only promotes corruption among law enforcers.

A deeper, liberalist argument against not letting people drink what they want to is the balance between individual liberty and state intervention. That was what the Bombay high court underlined last month when it allowed people to eat beef brought from other states. Article 21 (right to life) “includes the right to lead a meaningful life. It protects the citizen from unnecessary state intrusion into his home. For leading a meaningful life, a citizen will have to eat food and preferably food of his choice. If the state tells him not to eat a particular kind of food…it will prevent the citizen from leading a meaningful life…,” the court noted.

Thus, prohibition is a populist and opportunist move; it affects the administration’s finances, kills people, promotes corruption and is basically illiberal.

Prohibition, in other words, is injurious to health, of people, of the exchequer and of the state.

But, then, in that case, the bottle package should display that warning instead of the regulation statutory warning of alcohol being injurious to your health. So, firstly, the state and the liquor lobby need to acknowledge that here is a harmful substance, which they are still promoting because they need money.

The revenue loss argument is like hooch – it’s spurious. For Bihar or Tamil Nadu, one can take last year’s figure and talk of notional loss this year, but consider the fact that Gujarat never had any real loss because there was no previous year when it made any money from liquor (and that did not stop it from becoming an economic powerhouse right within a couple of decades of its inception). As Bihar’s excise minister Jalil Mastan says (see interview, pages 30-31), there are creative ways of sourcing revenue (who would’ve thought of agricultural cess on AC restaurant bills?), but the first principle is that ours is a welfare state, not a profiteering state.

Let’s not even quote MK Gandhi on prohibition, but the constitution is still “the only holy book”, right? “The state shall endeavour to bring about prohibition of the consumption except for medicinal purposes of intoxicating drinks and of drugs which are injurious to health.” That’s what the founding fathers said in the Directive Principles of State Policy. Now that they are dead, the confounding sons want the state to take money out of a poor drunkard’s pocket.

Hooch tragedies is an emotional blackmail that has little empirical backing – after all, they take place not only in Gujarat but also in places where liquor is flowing freely. The factor here is not the availability or otherwise of alcohol, but its price. If corruption in administration and inefficiency in implementation are admitted as fair grounds of argument against prohibition, then there should be equally fair grounds to wind up the whole administration – especially the revenue collection part.

And the figures of moonshine deaths need to be compared with figures of deaths from drunken driving (next to nil in Gujarat), and by extrapolation figures of crimes against women (again, far lower in Gujarat, going by the anecdotal evidence of every casual visitor to the state who is surprised seeing young women returning home alone after a late-night movie show).

That just about makes the full case for prohibition. Though it sounds like a fad from Gandhi’s Gujarat, there are nations around the world where alcohol is banned, and they are not only Islamic republics but also European countries.

Which brings us to the liberal argument, against the state intrusion into a citizen’s private choice. To cite the Bombay high court judgment again, dictating a citizen’s food or, by extension, drink habits is certainly not the state’s job – but there is a proviso. “Consumption of food which is not injurious to health is part of an individual’s autonomy or his right to be left alone.” Going by the bottle label, alcohol does not fit the bill.

This, of course, does not settle the argument, but only begins it. Let there be a nationwide debate.

ashishm@governancenow.com

(The column appears in the June 16-30, 2016 issue)

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