Prohibition resurfaced as a major political issue, with the December 2016 Supreme Court judgment banning liquor sales within 500 metres of highways to counter drunken driving. However, the issue of alcoholism is complex and requires the framing of a comprehensive liquor policy that regulates, rehabilitates, and refocuses on the importance of awareness creation.
The past few years have seen the resurgence of the spectre of prohibition and alcoholism in not only the political sphere but also the judicial one. Prohibition was the major electoral issue that dominated the Bihar (2015), Kerala (2015), and Tamil Nadu (2016) assembly elections. This was followed by the historic December 2016 Supreme Court judgment banning the sale of all liquor within 500 metres of highways to counter drunken driving. While prohibition as an electoral promise has been tried time and again by the state governments in the post-independence period, the blanket ban by the Supreme Court betrays a moral overtone rather than a solely judicial rationale. Neither the imposition of prohibition nor the ban on the sale of liquor within 500 metres of highways is likely to have a serious impact on problems associated with alcoholism and drunken driving. The principal reason why such initiatives are likely to fail is because they seem to be based on the simplistic assumption that cutting off the supply impacts effective demand for alcohol. The issue of alcoholism is much more complex and requires a multipronged approach through the framing of a comprehensive liquor policy that regulates, rehabilitates, and refocuses on the importance of awareness creation.
Hamlet’s existential dilemma, albeit in a different form, has haunted liberal democracies of the world for over a century—whether to allow or not to allow its citizens to drink alcohol. India continues to be caught within this either–or trap. States in India have repeatedly experimented with prohibition in some form or the other without much success. However, the promise of prohibition as an electoral lure still holds sway with Kerala and Bihar, with political parties in Tamil Nadu joining the bandwagon of the prohibition brigade more recently. Historical evidence strongly points to the fact that prohibition is ineffective in both controlling and/or preventing alcohol consumption, often with deleterious effects.
According to the eminent archaeologist Patrick McGovern, the director of a bio-molecular project on cuisines, fermented beverages, and health and who specialises in detecting alcohol residues in pottery fragments in prehistoric sites, the consumption of alcohol can be traced back to the Neolithic period (over 9,000 years ago). In his view, agriculture was adopted in the Neolithic period as a means to ensure a steady supply of alcohol. McGovern’s analysis is based on a body of research that spans the globe, covering China, Iran, Mexico, and even the sites of the Sumerian civilisation (Thadeusz 2009). Closer home, tracing the history of alcohol consumption in Tamil Nadu, A R Venkatachalapathy, a well-known historian, says that social drinking has always been a part of Tamil culture since the Sangam period (Venkatachalapathy 2015). The ability of humans to brew liquor from the most bizarre and unimaginable objects is indeed mind-boggling. However, this ingenuity to conjure up alcohol from almost everything has always been overshadowed by a sense of moral disquiet and a puritanical judgment that has driven the demands for prohibition. Consequently, policies related to the consumption of alcohol are generally shaped by this moral ambiguity and are invariably framed within the dichotomous framework of whether “to impose or not to impose” prohibition. However, the issue is much more complex than a simple binary construct and needs more comprehensive deliberation and policy.
Prohibition—What History Tells Us
One of the most cited and earliest examples of prohibition comes from the United States (US), where the nationwide prohibition of alcohol was implemented for over 13 years (1920–33), largely in response to demands by evangelical Protestant churches and women’s groups (Tripathi 2015). The early 20th century also saw prohibition introduced for short periods in Finland (1919–32), Iceland (1915–22), Norway (1916–32), and Russia (1914–25). Dubbed the “noble experiment,” prohibition in the US was aimed at addressing a wide range of social problems. More specifically, it was intended to “reduce crime and corruption, solve social problems, reduce the tax burden created by the prisons and poor houses, and improve health and hygiene in America” (Thornton 1991: 1). Drawing on a number of studies, mostly by economists and social scientists, many of whom were supporters of prohibition, Thornton further shows that although the amount of alcohol consumed did drop initially, keeping true to the laws of economics, the yearly expenditure on alcohol actually increased during prohibition compared to that in the previous period. Acknowledging the reduction in alcohol consumption, Thornton cautions against viewing this in isolation and introduces four qualifications that challenge this claim of the supporters of prohibition:
(i) The decrease was not significant, with only a 20% reduction in the consumption being recorded. Prohibition was not successful in eradicating the consumption of alcohol.
(ii) After this early dip, there was a gradual increase in consumption of alcohol. Despite the allocation of considerable resources towards enforcing prohibition, illicit brewing and marketing continued unabated.
(iii) The budgets apportioned for enforcing prohibition increased along with consumption.
(iv) The assumption that prohibition was successful as it led to decreased consumption was misleading because prohibition had “pervasive and (perverse) effects on every aspect of alcohol production, distribution, and consumption” (Thornton 1991: 2).
Further, the unintended consequence of such a regulation as the “Iron Law of Prohibition”—a term coined by Richard Cowan in 1986 (Thornton 1991: 2)—indicates that the potency of the prohibited substance tends to rise with the strength of enforcement of the law. Not only does the potency increase, but it also varies due to adulteration with hazardous substances. The whole process of production and consumption of alcohol becomes completely unregulated as it operates outside the radar of the government (Thornton 1991).
The potency issue was considered to be of grave consequence in the American context and the death toll, as a result of spurious liquor consumption under prohibition, rose significantly in the US between 1920 and 1925. Some of the other unintended effects were a shift in the pattern of consumption as the whole aura of intrigue attached to drinking made it more attractive to the youth; the authorities having little knowledge of or control over the place of consumption as it was now being carried out illegally; and people beginning to indulge in alcohol consumption for medicinal purposes (Thornton 1991). Further, as Thornton summarises, the positive effects of the initial decrease in consumption were negated by the adverse impacts of the Iron Law of Prohibition. Further, even claims on health indicators such as a reduction in the number of alcohol-related deaths during the prohibition period were not supported by hard evidence (1991). Finally, the expectation that crime rates would fall due to prohibition did not materialise. Rather, the steady decline in crime rates witnessed during the 19th and early 20th centuries were reversed by the imposition of prohibition. Citing several studies by scholars such as Towne, Woody and Fisher, Thornton shows how a wide range of crimes, including those related to the violation of prohibition such as drunken driving, disorderly conduct due to inebriation, and so on, went up significantly during prohibition. In fact “two-thirds of all prisoners received in 1930 (by federal prisons) had been convicted of alcohol and drug-related offences” (Thornton 1991: 7). But even more disturbing was the way in which crime started getting organised in response to prohibition laws against “victimless” crimes such as consuming alcohol or drugs, gambling, and prostitution, which had become lucrative. Citing the works of scholars such as Pandiani and Ferdinand, who have documented a sudden (“mysterious” [sic]) reversal in crime rates with the repeal of prohibition, Thornton illustrates the strong link between the rise of major crimes and prohibition (1991). Further, instead of decreasing corruption, prohibition became a basis for corruption in public life. Evidently, prohibition in the US was not only ineffective in reducing alcohol consumption but also gave rise to a host of other social problems, some of which continue to plague American society even today.
The Indian Experience
In the aftermath of independence, unlike the US, the Indian government did not impose a centralised regulation regarding alcohol consumption. Rather, it was left to individual states to formulate their own policies about alcohol through Article 47 in the Directive Principles of State Policy (Gupta 2015; Panjiar 2010). An article in the Telegraph (Tripathi 2015) that traces this history shows that the period between 1948 and 1950 witnessed three states—Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, and Gujarat—impose prohibition. The next wave that lasted from 1958 to 1969 saw nearly six states (parts of Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Karnataka, and Kerala) follow suit. Even though 1958 was set as the deadline for nationwide implementation of prohibition by the Prohibition Enquiry Committee, this did not materialise as many states withdrew prohibition citing “loss of excise revenue and leakages in the form of smuggling” (Panjiar 2010; Tripathi 2015). According to Panjiar, there was an offer in 1964 by the centre to compensate the states 50% of revenue shortfall experienced through loss of excise revenue, but this was not accepted by most states. Only Gujarat and Mizoram continued to implement prohibition (Panjiar 2010).
Gujarat seems to be the only state to have a steady policy on liquor. First having prohibition imposed upon it when it was still a part of Bombay Presidency (via the Bombay Prohibition Act, 1949), Gujarat has continued to have prohibition in place even after it became a separate state in 1960. However, every write-up on Gujarat’s prohibition also points out that despite prohibition being in place for more than six decades, a steady supply of liquor continues to be available through an underground network of bootleggers, organised criminal gangs, and “corrupt officials” (Tripathi 2015). Gujarat has faced illicit liquor tragedies in the 1970s and 1980s. Even though the enquiry commission set up to review the incidents recommended a review of prohibition, the government was not willing to consider it (Panjiar 2010). Unpacking the reasons that have prevented Gujarat’s ban from being effective, Vijapurkar (2014) shows that the complicity of the enforcers and their political bosses with the bootleggers has resulted in a thriving underground liquor business worth an estimated ₹4,000 crore based on the amount of illicit liquor consumed. “Folder” seems to be the sobriquet of the band of operatives that caters to the liquor requirements of the citizenry. Firstpost goes on to show how the bootlegging industry focusses on hard liquor and not light brews like beer because of the sheer volume involved. This reinforces the dangers of prohibition that Thornton (1991) was illustrating in the case of the US.
Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, and Tamil Nadu have all attempted to unsuccessfully enforce prohibition at various points in time. Some North East states—Manipur, Mizoram, and Nagaland—which had strict policies in place prohibiting the consumption and sale of alcohol have all liberalised these policies in the last few years. Ironically, while the states that have had strict prohibition laws in place are beginning to liberalise their policies, another set of states is jumping onto the prohibition bandwagon.
The 2015 cycle of assembly elections saw Kerala, Bihar, and even Tamil Nadu politicians trying to woo the voters with the promise of total prohibition. The Bihar government’s electoral promise, led by Nitish Kumar of Janata Dal (United) [JD(U)], was to introduce prohibition as a way of reducing domestic violence. Interestingly, Bihar does not have a history of prohibition and the JD(U) used the rhetoric of prohibition as an electoral strategy against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Post election, each of these states has gone on to impose prohibition in different ways. While Kerala and Tamil Nadu have opted for prohibition in a phased manner, the Nitish Kumar government in Bihar has gone all out to impose total prohibition from 1 April 2016 (Tewary 2015).
Bihar provides an excellent example of how not to implement prohibition. The draconian ways in which the Bihar government is trying to implement prohibition is a serious cause for concern. Provisions such as the arrest of all adult members of the family if alcohol is found in the household, the imposition of a fine on the entire village if alcohol is found in any household within that village, and a 10-year jail term for violating the policy have been severely criticised by the public as well as the opposition parties. Even the Patna High Court found that the provisions of the amended Excise Act were “unreasonable and draconian and cannot be justified in a civilised society” and struck it down in response to an appeal (S Singh 2016a). Rather than amend the law, the Nitish Kumar government came back with an even more stringent Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016 in place of the Bihar Excise (Amendment) Act, 2016. Even the “longest human chain in support of prohibition” was not citizen-led but government initiated. Barely nine months after the imposition of prohibition, rampant liquor smuggling has been reported along with a spurt in liquor-related crimes (Deccan Herald 2017; Hindu 2017) Newspaper reports from Bihar indicate that rural families and villagers are hiding the tragic consequences of spurious liquor consumption by burning the bodies of the victims lest they become implicated and penalised by the government for aiding and abetting under the new act (Karmakar 2017).
Despite the recent report released by the Nitish Kumar government claiming a “significant decrease” in violence against women after prohibition (Singh 2017), the objective of tackling domestic violence by enforcing prohibition is not backed by evidence. This point and the general ineffectiveness of such a policy are well illustrated in a scholarly article by Kumar and Prakash (2016). Using studies analysing the impact of the amended Child Labour Act, 2016, the authors show that embargoes in general rarely succeed and instead tend to exacerbate the problem they are supposed to address. Further, the authors question the link between alcohol consumption and domestic violence by providing data on male attitudes towards domestic violence: 74% of men in Gujarat reported that they were justified in beating their wives for a gamut of reasons, including serious ones such as unfaithfulness and trivial ones such as failure to seek the husband’s permission to go out or burning food! The same survey showed that 51% of men in Bihar expressed similar views. Multivariate regression for all Indian states indicates that the probability (17%) of domestic violence goes up with the consumption of alcohol. But this number rose to 26% when only the data for Gujarat—a state that has had prohibition in force for the longest period of time anywhere in the world—was analysed. This analysis not only forces one to relook at the failure of prohibition in preventing the consumption of liquor but also the tendency of policymakers to reduce complex issues such as that of domestic violence by attributing it simply to the consumption of alcohol.
Kerala has brought in a prohibition policy that is expected to phase out the sale of alcohol and its consumption by 2023. In 2012, the Kerala government attempted to regulate alcohol consumption by such moves as banning the sale of liquor during daytime (Indian Express 2012). There had been protests in Kerala villages that border Tamil Nadu demanding the closure of liquor shops across the border in Tamil Nadu, finally leading to the closure of these shops by the Tamil Nadu government (Kumar 2016; Shaji 2016). This is a rare, one-off instance of cross-border cooperation between states with differing liquor policies in order to limit access to liquor. However, given the large extent of interstate boundaries that each state shares with often three to four other states, each with different liquor policies, it would be untenable to expect universal cooperation. This highlights the ineffectiveness of prohibition by a state with porous borders. Access to liquor through smuggling and bootlegging—or even a walk across the border, as long as the neighbouring states do not follow a similar policy—would continue unabated, as is currently being witnessed in Bihar (Deccan Herald2017)
Tamil Nadu is one of the few states that had unveiled a detailed plan for bringing in prohibition in a phased manner. The government had withstood the pressure from the opposition in 2015 to impose immediate prohibition in the state despite massive agitation by certain sections of society. Instead, as an electoral promise, the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) under the late Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa had unveiled a detailed, phased plan for the closure of Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation (TASMAC) shops. As per a Hindu article, “First the working hours of the TASMAC liquor shops would be reduced, the number of shops would then be reduced, the bars attached to them closed, and rehabilitation centres would be opened” (Kannan 2016).
Tamil Nadu has had a chequered history with prohibition. Both leading political parties in Tamil Nadu have had an on–off policy where prohibition is concerned while they have been in power. Tracing the history of liquor consumption in Tamil Nadu to Sangam literature, eminent historian Venkatachalapathy (2015) shows that this ambivalence towards drinking has been a part of Tamil history. While drinking was an acceptable social custom in ancient Tamil Nadu, as evidenced by Sangam literature, the same had assumed iniquitous undertones by the time of Thiruvalluvar. In one of his Kurals, Thiruvalluvar denounces excessive drinking but then goes on to liken the delights of love to the joys of the divine taste of palm wine elsewhere (Venkatachalapathy 2015).
Tamil Nadu witnessed prohibition as early as in 1937, when the then Premier of Madras Presidency, C Rajagopalachari, had introduced prohibition in Salem district, with other parts of Madras Presidency being brought under prohibition subsequently in 1948. In 1939, the first General Sales Tax law was also introduced in Madras Presidency, thus establishing a fiscal link between the two since inception (Subramanian 2002). Following independence, Tamil Nadu’s policy on prohibition remained unchanged until 1971, when it was lifted for the first time by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government led by M Karunanidhi by permitting the sale of arrack and toddy in the state (Subramanian 2002). It has been said that the elder statesman C Rajagopalachari wanted the then Chief Minister, M Karunanidhi, to rescind the permission, but the chief minister is reported to have said that “Tamil Nadu was ‘a lump of camphor amidst a ring of fire’” referring to the porous state borders through which liquor flowed easily from neighbouring states that did not have prohibition (Venkatachalapathy 2015). However, within three years, prohibition was back in place in Tamil Nadu (in 1974) with two major liquor tragedies occurring in the next two years (1975 and 1976) in the state due to consumption of illicit brews (Subramanian 2002). The pattern repeats in the 1980s and 1990s, with liquor tragedies occurring whenever a ban was imposed on sale of arrack and toddy.1 Tamil Nadu’s state-controlled liquor distribution system, wherein Indian-made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) is made available at affordable prices to the poorer sections, came in response to three separate liquor tragedies that claimed around 100 lives due to consumption of methanol-based illicit liquor in 2001 (Subramanian 2002). Although this policy was accepted and adopted by both the leading political parties in power in the last decade, a sudden furore was created—with an eye on the elections—during July and August 2015 with a demand for immediate abolition of liquor in the state. Reporting on the protests in a Kanyakumari village that also had tragic consequences with the death of the long-time pro-prohibition activist “Sasi” Perumal, a Frontline article points to the fact that most of the protesters at the so-called pro-prohibition rally were not actually in support of prohibition but were protesting the TASMAC shop being located in a particular location (Radhakrishnanan 2015).
As the former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, J Jayalalithaa, had mentioned, liquor cannot be abolished with a single stroke (Kannan 2016). However, given the current political situation in Tamil Nadu, it is imperative that the Tamil Nadu government does not give in to pressure by the opposition leaders and the judiciary to hasten the prohibition process. A comprehensive liquor policy with prohibition as the end goal is likely to be beset with all the problems that prohibition wreaks unless steps are taken to mitigate them right from the beginning.
Framing a Comprehensive Liquor Policy
Alcohol is one of those commodities that have a multidimensional impact. Too often the complexity of this issue has been obscured by a unidimensional focus on the fiscal argument. It has been estimated that Kerala gets nearly 22% of revenue from excise (around ₹8,000 crore); Tamil Nadu gets around ₹21,800 crore from the state-owned liquor sales; West Bengal gets around ₹2,600 crore; and in Maharashtra, excise revenue has been estimated at ₹9,600 crore, which includes sales from tobacco products. The excise revenue from the liquor trade is a significant source of state revenue in most states (Vijapurkar 2014).
Revenue from excise has allowed governments to extend its welfare schemes to vulnerable sections, and hence an overnight imposition of prohibition will not only imply a loss of this significant proportion of revenue but also additional expenditure in terms of investment in the personnel required towards enforcement. Often, state governments have been accused of taking the easier path of relying on excise revenue rather than exploring other revenue options, but the issue is more complex than that. The policymakers are extremely cautious and aware of the tipp(l)ing point while fixing the sale prices of liquor as it might push the consumers from lower income groups into seeking cheaper alternatives in spurious liquor. In fact, in 2002, the then chief minister of Tamil Nadu took the decision to introduce IMFL at cheaper rates when nearly 100 people died after consuming spurious liquor laced with methanol in separate incidences around the state. This was done by slashing the excise duty (Subramanian 2002). By providing IMFL at cheaper prices, TASMAC has succeeded in ensuring that the market for spurious liquor has shrunk (Edmond 2016).
Prohibition has not led to a complete absence of drinking even in states such as Gujarat. By imposing prohibition, not only will the states stand to lose a significant source of revenue to the bootleggers and underground mafia that will take over the supply chain, they would also have to invest enormous resources to enforce prohibition. This is already evident in Bihar (Singh and Pandey 2016). History demonstrates that along with an increase in crime rates during prohibition, there is also higher incidence of law and order situations arising from deaths due to consumption of illicit liquor, particularly that laced with methanol. Under prohibition, state governments will also have to be prepared to deal rapidly with the management of man-made disasters such as liquor tragedies.2In most of the liquor tragedies occurring around the country, methanol is the killer, and unless strict measures are taken to control the availability of methanol, liquor tragedies are just a drink away under prohibition. Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Orissa, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, and Kerala have all been witness to liquor tragedies occurring due to the consumption of spurious liquor in the last two decades. Bihar has already witnessed at least three reported spurious liquor tragedies since the imposition of prohibition (Karmakar 2017; R K Singh 2017; S Singh 2017). Manor (1993) studying this deadly killer through an analysis of the Bengaluru liquor tragedy of 1981 that took the lives of nearly 300 people from poor economic backgrounds, shows how badly prepared the urban systems were (and are) in coping with such disasters. Manor goes on to offer a multipronged approach to combat the problem of liquor tragedies.
According to him, making available cheap, packaged arrack to rural and urban poor; extending public health services to urban slums; making liquor-related offences non-bailable; and introducing a liquor poisoning code on the lines of the famine code in order to facilitate rapid response are some of the ways in which such tragedies can be averted or contained in the future. However, nearly 35 years later, none of the state governments announcing prohibitions have simultaneously unveiled an accompanying disaster management system to deal with the often fatal consequences of imposing prohibition, as witnessed in Bihar (S Singh 2016b). No lessons seem to have been learnt. This lacuna was once again highlighted in 2015 by the spurious liquor tragedy caused by methanol adulteration in Mumbai (Devnath 2015), more than 20 years after Manor’s book and 35 years after the Bengaluru liquor tragedy. The responding medical fraternity is still not educated in dealing with methanol-related tragedies.
The gender dimension of the liquor problem is another aspect that needs to be considered while framing a comprehensive liquor policy. Often the promise of prohibition is used as a means to capture the votes of the female electorate as it is often the women’s movements that drive the demand for prohibition. However, this demand for prohibition presupposes an environment free from the availability of all forms of liquor, for between alcoholism and deaths/injuries due to the consumption of illicit liquor, the former is preferable, as women fighting for prohibition have found to their grief after having lost loved ones to the consumption of spurious liquor during prohibition. These words of a woman campaigner poignantly highlight this conundrum: “Those of us who campaigned against liquor still believe that alcohol is the source of all ruin, especially for the poor,” says Deepa G, a middle-aged woman from Guntur who had canvassed for the ban in Andhra Pradesh, “But I’ve learnt that a ban is like closing your eyes. You can say nothing is happening, but you have stopped nothing” (Menon 2015).
Further, the general depiction of women as always being the victims is a simplistic one. While women and families do suffer from the negative impacts of alcoholism, they also form part of the network of illicit liquor markets, either voluntarily or through coercion and/or due to economic compulsions. This was evident in the 1981 Bengaluru liquor tragedy where the second in command was a woman (Manor 1993) and in Tamil Nadu where women were arrested in Vellore for selling illicit liquor (Subramanian 2002). Prohibition provides opportunities to the associated criminal networks indulging in bootlegging and the trade of illicit liquor to exploit the situation and recruit poorer women as carriers and suppliers as they are less likely to be searched by the law enforcement agencies, thus pushing these women into criminal activities.
The issue of public health is another dimension that needs to be explicitly addressed while framing a comprehensive liquor policy. This requires a two-pronged approach, one aimed at addressing alcohol-related illnesses and addictions and another aimed at putting preventive measures in place. Alcohol-related illnesses and addictions require more sympathetic treatment and assistance than being given at present as they symbolise not only physical but also mental illness. De-addiction and rehabilitation centres should be made easily and widely accessible and be fully functional before any decision on prohibition is taken. Governments could consider linking de-addiction centres with primary health centres in rural areas. Apart from fatalities, sustained consumption of low-quality, spurious liquor is likely to cause long-term organ and neurological damage, requiring large investments in public health, as it would be the poorer sections of society that would turn towards spurious liquor in times of prohibition.
The aura of shame attached to drinking and the moral condemnation of drinkers, especially by medical and social service personnel, needs to be addressed as it can be a major deterrent to seeking help. Further, the medical fraternity needs to be educated in rapidly responding to and treating victims of liquor tragedies. Research shows that methanol is the main culprit in the countless deaths in each hooch tragedy that has occurred in India and the world over since 1945 (Manor 2015). According to Manor,
Many lives would be saved, and grotesque injuries would be prevented, if every doctor and nurse in India was made aware of nine vitally important words: The Poison is Methanol, and the Antidote is Ethanol.
Many doctors assume that chloral hydrate is the poisoning agent and treat it accordingly with disastrous consequences. Apparently, ethanol (alcohol) has the properties to ensure that methanol is not absorbed or broken down by the body but is safely eliminated. However, for this to happen, governments contemplating prohibition must invest in mobile forensic laboratories that are trained to rapidly analyse the contents of the illicit brews in coordination with medical teams that are trained to handle the impact of the various types of chemicals found in spurious liquor.
Governments contemplating prohibition must also ensure that methanol is not made available easily. For instance, in Tamil Nadu, methanol was removed from the Tamil Nadu Prohibition Act in 1984. This has made the task of monitoring the diversion of methanol into brewing spurious liquor much harder for law enforcement agencies. In Tamil Nadu, diversion of methanol for spurious liquor can be punishable under either the Poisons Act, 1919 which is a central legislation, or the Petroleum Rules, 2002 of the Government of India. However, these transgressions are not considered serious offences and carry only a three-month imprisonment under the Poisons Act, 1919 (Subramanian 2002). A comprehensive liquor policy should first come out with a stronger rule to monitor the use of methanol and frame policies that award a severe penalty for its diversion towards uses other than those for which it was acquired.
Another significant step is the process of regulating access to liquor. State governments should undertake a series of measures to ensure that the availability of alcohol is strictly regulated. Several options have been tried, such as enforcing a weekly dry day; restricted timings for liquor outlets; strict control over the locations of liquor shops; stringent measures against people selling liquor to those under the legal age limit; closing of bars attached to liquor shops; regulating the sale of loose liquor; and so on.
Problems related to alcohol consumption are not the bane of developing countries alone. Even Western societies are combating the problems of excessive/binge drinking, underage drinking, alcoholism, and so on. In the UK, the government has proposed setting a minimum price for alcohol and forbidding discounts for bulk purchases. In Australia, a social media campaign is successfully being used to change the perception of binge drinking. France has strict laws against advertising for alcoholic beverages. In Finland, the sale of liquor is strictly regulated; any alcoholic beverages with an alcohol content of more than 4.7% volume is sold only through Alko—Finnish alcohol retailers that hold the monopoly on the alcohol trade. Finland also ensures that shifts in prices of liquor due to changes in taxing policy are passed onto the consumers. Use of minimum pricing has also been successfully tried in Canada, where an increase in the minimum price has shown a clear decline in consumption of both beer and wine in some provinces (BBC 2012).
More than anything, the governments should first invest in creating better awareness among citizens about the negative impact of alcohol consumption. This investment in education and awareness should start at the school level. A significant model to follow here is the anti-tobacco campaign that has slowly and steadily had an impact on smoking. However, we need to remember that the anti-tobacco movement has taken nearly three decades to bear fruit. According to the preliminary findings released by the recent National Family and Health Survey, the incidence of both smoking and drinking has come down in India. Of the 13 states studied, tobacco use was 47% in 2015 compared to 50% in 2005–06. Similarly, the survey also found that drinking among men had come down from 38% to 34% between these two time periods (Krishnan et al 2016). This is indeed a positive development and needs to be sustained, requiring significant investments in information education communication programmes that educate, create awareness, and promote at least responsible drinking, if not total abstinence.
State governments also need to go beyond their comfort zones and document good practices tried and tested by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other institutions for managing alcohol problems not only within the country but also outside the country. Chakradhar (2009) examines the innovative experience of community-based rehabilitation programmes tried successfully in Tamil Nadu by the TTK Hospital and shows how such community-based initiatives are relevant in rural North America, which also grapples with alcohol and substance addiction. In fact, community-based approaches, as long as they are conceptualised to be devoid of the shame factor, provide the addicts and their families with not only emotional support but also the validation of being part of a community, which is vital to success as many battling alcohol-related problems struggle with a sense of isolation from their society. A community-based approach will also help identify repeat offenders and devise more intense programmes for them.
Research shows that a “multiple-component approach” works best to tackle alcohol-related problems than a single-component or “stand-alone” intervention (Herring et al 2011). Thus, prohibition is not the first step of a comprehensive liquor policy but the last in a series of measures that is spread over a relatively long period of time as such changes take time to show impact.
According to McGovern, “moderate alcohol consumption was advantageous for our early ancestors and they adapted to it biologically” (Thadeusz 2009). This historical legacy continues to haunt society even today. Despite ample evidence to its ineffectiveness, one political party after another continues to use prohibition as an electoral lure. Political parties should try to move away from this binary framework of (whether or not) prohibition and explore the range of options in between these two polarised views even though politically such a stance is not considered fashionable. While prohibition may seem like the easiest and the most logical way to tackle the problem of alcoholism to the electorate, in reality, prohibition only exacerbates the problem instead of curbing it. The electorate should be made aware of the complexity of the issue and be encouraged to demand a more systematic approach to tackle alcoholism. A pragmatic approach that accepts drinking as part of the social culture and aims to regulate it is likely to be a more effective stance rather than taking a moralistic or emotional view that views drinking as the purveyor of all evils.
The onus is not on the state governments alone. Civil society also has the responsibility of demanding from its political parties a comprehensive policy that addresses all the related issues instead of uncritically demanding or accepting proclamations of prohibition. This is especially important as several state governments are facing elections in 2018 and prohibition as an electoral lure is likely to be tried by different political parties. History has repeatedly taught us that prohibition does not work, especially when the supply of alcohol is cut off without any attempts to alter the demand pattern. In such instances, the worst sufferers of prohibition invariably are the poor.
More importantly, political parties need to have a clear vision of what they are trying to achieve—prevention of consumption of alcohol or liquor poisoning—as the two are contrary goals. Time and again, we have seen that attempts to prevent the consumption of alcohol end up facilitating liquor poisonings as people resort to consuming illicit, often spurious, liquor with tragic consequences. The two goals are contrary only in the short term. They may both be achievable in the long term if the short-term objectives centre around prevention of liquor-related tragedies while simultaneously creating awareness and promoting a culture of responsible drinking with the end goal being a more regulated supply of alcohol with built-in checks and controls. This requires time and longitudinal planning to be successful. Taking the cue from the anti-tobacco campaign, the state governments should try to cultivate a responsible drinking culture among their citizens. However, as long as the sword of prohibition hangs over the people who drink, this will not be a feasible proposition.
Alcoholism and drunken driving are indeed a menace to society, but the recent Supreme Court judgment, delivered from a unidimensional perspective, has missed the opportunity to push the state governments to come out with a comprehensive liquor policy that deals with the problem of alcoholism in its entirety. What it has instead achieved is a unique situation of highways disappearing instead of liquor outlets!
1 From 1981 to 1987, prohibition in Tamil Nadu was lifted by the AIDMK Chief Minister, M G Ramachandran. This period did not witness any incidences of deaths due to liquor tragedies. The ban of arrack and toddy in 1987 again resulted in a series of liquor tragedies. The ban was lifted for a short period between 1990 and 1991 by the DMK government and again rescinded by the AIADMK government, which came to power in 1991 (Subramanian 2002).
2 Accidents resulting in death and damage due to the consumption of spurious, illicit liquor have historically been referred to as “Liquor Tragedies,” largely in the print media.
BBC (2012): “How Others Are Tackling Problem Drinking,” 23 March, http://www.bbc.com/
Chakradhar, Kala (2009): “Innovative Interventions with Alcohol Problems in Rural Areas: An Indian Experience and Its Relevance to Rural America,” Social Work & Society, Vol 7, No 1, http://www.socwork.net/sws/
Deccan Herald (2017): “Liquor Smuggling Rampant in Bihar despite Raids, Seizures,” 31 October, https://m.dailyhunt.
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