Pangs of prohibition after Independence

Pangs of prohibition after Independence

By Sambit Dash

In part I of this three-part essay, we saw how Mahatma Gandhi’s morals largely shaped the prohibition policy in pre-Independent India which led quarter (no pun intended) of the country to ban alcohol in the initial years of Independent India.

Several Indian States flirted with prohibition post-Independence. One case stands out for the effect prohibition ultimately had, which came to haunt India for decades. Maharashtra.

Morarji Desai’s morality brought prohibition to effect, and along with other illogical ideals, almost overnight. What happened then has been documented, least of all, in popular Bollywood movies. The rise of the underworld occurred with this development with names like Haji Mastan, Varadarajan Mudaliar (remember Vinod Khanna in Dayavaan or originally Kamal Haasan as Velu Nayakan) taking advantage of the situation and creating a black market to meet the demand. How the underworld has proved to be the bane for India is known to everyone.

The one State that is the poster boy of prohibition is Gandhi’s (or Modi’s depending on your affiliation) Gujarat. But as ‘The Indian Express’ once described, Gujarat is a ‘dry State’ with Gandhi’s birthplace Porbandar as its ‘bootlegging capital’. The State has a per capita alcohol consumption of about 2 litres; it is touted that alcohol gets delivered faster than pizza there and Gujaratis make a beeline for the neighbouring Daman and Diu to get their alcohol. But things have been more tragic. In 2009, in one of the worst hooch tragedies, about 140 people lost their lives in the State.

Another case is that of Manipur, called as the ‘wettest dry State’. A prohibition in the State imposed in 1991 was lifted in major parts in 2001 after there was a serious rise in illicit liquor use, methanol poisoning and drug abuse. Similar is the story of Mizoram, which lifted an 18-year-old ban on alcohol in 2014.

Tamil Nadu needs a special mention here for being a State that quite successfully banned alcohol after Independence, but now the Government itself has near monopoly over wholesale and retail vending of alcohol through Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation (TASMAC). So much so that it has petitioned the Supreme Court to set aside the Madras High Court directive to ban alcohol sale during the pandemic.

The newest kid on the block of prohibition is Bihar. It is common knowledge that after prohibition was imposed, illegal routes through Nepal, bordering West Bengal, have opened up doing little to the cause but as a by-product causing black market to flourish.

Pay and Use

The popular narrative about drinking in India is often mired in matters of morality, culture and religion, and in no particular order. While about a third of India’s population drink regularly, the numbers are rising with time.

As per a study published in reputed medical journal ‘The Lancet’ in 2019, India’s alcohol consumption grew by a massive 38 per cent between 2010 and 2017, which is an increase of 4.3 to 5.9 litre per adult per year. It must be noted that India’s average consumption is much below many other countries. For example in the US, the average consumption is 9.8 litres, in China it is 7.4 litres. The trend shows that while alcohol consumption has stagnated in the high income countries, those which are growing and are aspirational, like China and India, are seeing a growth.

One of the major arguments provided in favour of sale of alcohol is the revenue it generates for the States selling it. So much so that this revenue source is second to tax on land sale for most States. As per International Spirits & Wine Association of India, the revenue from alcohol sale in 2019-20 was Rs 2.5 trillion. To put it in perspective, the GST collection by the Union Government from April to October for financial year 2018-19 was Rs 2.64 trillion. Alcohol industry employs about 1 million people. What a loss of revenue to the tune of Rs 30,000-40,000 crore during the lockdown means to many of these jobs is anyone’s guess.

Lessons are Clear

The lessons from the experiment of prohibition are clear. It just does not work. The fallouts of such a policy are dire. Banning alcohol gives rise to black market, increases spurious liquor production and consumption, promotes use of other and often more dangerous narcotics, which then directly risks lives of people – often the poor. It also promotes bribery, while not doing anything to address the demand for it.

Various news reports have brought it to the fore that alcohol has been sold at exorbitant prices during the lockdown when its sale was banned. Spurious liquor racket has been busted, including in Odisha, during this period.

Increased spending power, aspirational society, globalisation, cultural shift, large younger population have all resulted in increasing demand and consumption of alcohol – a trend that will not go away. That alcohol forms a huge chunk of revenue for States makes it lucrative for the coffers and thus incentives for States to ban it are few, especially with the distasteful experience that prohibition has time and again provided.

Does this mean that the harmful effects of alcohol are to be sacrificed at the altar of revenue? This is a raging question in the debate that has been kindled in the times of the unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic. We shall look into the answers in the next and last part.

__ The author is Senior Grade Lecturer, Department of Biochemistry, Melaka Manipal Medical College (Manipal Campus). He comments on public policy, healthcare and issues of social interest. He tweets at @sambit_dash

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