The moral dilemma on banning booze

The moral dilemma on banning booze

By Sambit Dash

Never before in recent history has alcohol been a subject of intense debate in India as during the third phase of the nationwide lockdown due to Covid-19, when the Government allowed the liquor shops to be opened.

After being shut down for weeks, the opening of liquor shops saw social distancing norms flouted, police resorting to crowd control and record sale of alcohol being reported. Public health, domestic violence, road rage and other ill effects of alcohol were pitted against arguments of individual liberty, revenue generation and black marketing which make alcohol sale desirous.

In three-part essay, let us analyse various policy aspects of alcohol right from Mahatma Gandhi’s morality and demand for prohibition before Independence, Constituent Assembly’s debate leading to inclusion of prohibition as Directive Principles of State Policies, the failed experiments with prohibition, the ill effects of alcoholism and the road ahead for dealing with this contentious substance.

First things first. To have an informed debate on this issue, it has to be taken out of the brackets of morality which the Indian society usually has plenty to offer. While individual liberty is sacrosanct, the liberal cause also needs to acknowledge the real dangers that alcohol possesses and thus the need for regulation. That said, often ignored is the basic State capacity in various aspects, which offers answers to various questions in this debate.

Tryst with prohibition in Constitution

There is enough evidence that intoxicating drinks are not alien to Indian culture. Right through pre-Vedic times, ferments from pre-Aryan rice, soma and prahamana in Rig Veda, use of ‘sura’, medicinal alcohol in Charaka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita, its mention in Arthashastra, intoxicating drink has had a pride of place. The story has been well narrated in the book “The untold story of Alcohol in India” by Magandeep Singh. But much of that is a long history.

Coming to Gandhi, he imbibed strong ‘Jain’ values against consumption of alcohol as a young man and forged the belief strongly during his stay in London and became a champion of prohibition in South Africa. Gandhi saw alcohol as foreign, added the ‘sin’ aspect to it, placed this cause above all his social reform causes, and called for prohibition throughout India.

Gandhi’s imposition of his moral values vis-à-vis alcohol finally found its place in the Indian Constitution in the form of Article 47, under Directive Principles of State Policies, which urges the State to follow prohibition on consumption of intoxicating substances except for medicinal purposes.

The Constituent Assembly on November 24, 1948 debated prohibition and the arguments then were also in the same vein as they are today. It was argued that ‘labour and Harijan families’ are the main consumers of liquor and prohibition would benefit them in terms of saving money.

However, to counter the popular narrative was B H Khardekar, representing Satara, who, in his maiden speech in the Assembly, argued that the American example was right before them where prohibition was enshrined in their Constitution, legislature made laws on it, yet it was a failure and prohibition had to be revoked.

Importantly, Khardekar went on to discuss the morality angle of prohibition and how the latter goes ‘against the very grain of personal liberty’ and mentioned that a distinction between ‘drinkers and drunkards’ need to be made. He stated what would actually go on to happen in many States that flirted with prohibition, that if deprived of a ‘drink by law, people would resort to illicit distillation’ and as prophetic it might sound, Khardekar questioned the State’s capacity and cited prevalence of bribery and corruption, that would aid in this nefarious activity.

Later, Jaipal Singh, representing Bihar, cited the Adivasi example that in many Adivasi culture, drinking of rice beer is deeply rooted and that it would be unfair to impose prohibition on them. However, the majority of the Assembly was in favour of prohibition. G B Kher of Bombay argued that alcohol causes to extinguish the very lamp that shows one a distinction between right and wrong and thus is ‘not a matter of individual liberty’ and that it was a ‘sin’ according to scriptures.

V I Muniswamy Pillai of Madras said that the State was losing Rs 17 crore in revenue but it was a fine bargain to protect people, especially the Harijans. However, the tryst with prohibition in pre-Independence India was again chequered. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel called the post prohibition law breaking in Bihar province as “utter fiasco”.

Provinces, that were ruled by the Congress at that time, realised that revenue from alcohol sale funded their social programmes and a three-year notice was planned to be issued before outlawing alcohol businesses. So much so that even Gandhi admitted that he had not “studied the economic aspect of the question”.

What Gandhi’s moral arc did to alcohol policy and the numerous fallouts is a classic example of what in policy studies is called unintended consequences – which we shall see in the next 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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