Prohibition is not a solution
The chequered history of banning alcohol is enough to demonstrate that prohibition causes more harm than benefits in India and helps bootlegger, corrupt and criminals
The ancient discipline of yoga is irrelevant without imposing ban on sale of liquor across the country and the Prime Minister must act in this regard, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar appealed to Narendra Modi just two days before the 2nd International Yoga Day which was celebrated on May 21. Although Kumar’s statement appears to be an indirect dig at Modi, it brought back the issue of alcohol prohibition on the political agenda, hot on the heels of a complete ban on the sale and consumption of liquor in Bihar from April 1. Prohibition of alcohol was a key electoral promise which Kumar fulfilled with an iron hand, buoyant of his party, JD(U)’s emphatic victory (in an alliance with Lalu Yadav’s RJD and the Congress) in the assembly elections last year.
With this, Bihar became the second state after Gujarat to recommend death penalty for manufacturers, suppliers and sellers of hooch in cases of death due to spurious liquor consumption. However, this initiative of Bihar is not an exception in its merit. Other parties, such as the DMK and the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu and the Congress in Kerala, are also championing this cause one way or the other. These states join a growing list, including Gujarat, a clutch of north eastern states and Lakshadweep, in imposing a policy which is currently not practised in any country outside the Islamic world. That embargo can win elections is a vivid reminder of the distressing social consequences of alcohol consumption in the form of household destitution, domestic violence and premature mortality. That these policies are completely at odds with history and public health science testifies to the bewildering complexity of the issue.
While this move may have gone down well with women voters who support the ban, Bihar is set to lose approximately Rs 5,000 crore annually through excise collection akin to Kerala which faces an estimated loss of more than Rs 7,000 crore annually and Gujarat loses an estimated Rs 2,000-3,000 crore in revenue per year. The ban also leads to decline in tourism revenue of a state.
Considering the consequences not only to public health but also to the state’s finances and individual freedom, prohibition brings with it many questions. And the first and foremost one is; has prohibition ever worked in this country? Definitely not. India’s experience with prohibition is chequered at best. Between the 1920s and 1930s to nearly two decades after Independence, booze was barred in large parts of the country. The anti-alcohol demonstrations took its inspiration from the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. Vast swathes of present day Assam, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala had implemented ban since about 1937. In 1967 all but two of them, Mizoram and Gujarat, repealed the law.
By 1954, almost one-fourth of India was under prohibition and the central government had an April 1958 target to achieve nationwide prohibition, said a report by the justice Udayabhanu committee, which studied the effects of alcoholism in Kerala in the 1990s. However, over the years in the recent history, various states have had their own adventures with prohibition. While Gujarat, Nagaland, and parts of Manipur are still dry, Mizoram lifted prohibition in 2014 after 18 years of a liquor ban. Andhra Pradesh swore off the booze under the Telugu Desam Party in 1995, but went back to it two years later, after state revenues took a hit. Same happened with Haryana which couldn’t continue prohibition for long. On the other hand, the political parties in Tamil Nadu have yo-yoed with their stand on alcohol since the 1940s.
ven if there is a prohibition in a state, it really doesn’t work in India. Nagaland, for instance, has been a dry state since 1989. But it borders Assam, which helps in keeping a nonstop movement of liquor into the state. Just across the border, on the road that enters Assam from Nagaland’s Dimapur, one can easily find rows of liquor shops and makeshift bars. Even in Dimapur, it is not difficult to discover pubs hidden in residential complexes. Similarly, in Gujarat, a dry state since 1960 when it was carved out from the Bombay State, it is said that booze gets delivered to the doorstep faster than pizza, with the right contacts (locally called folder). For those who don’t, places such as Abu Road in the north or Daman and Diu in the south are where Gujaratis throng to quench their thirst. Likewise, in Bihar, people are said to be crossing over to shops in bordering Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and West Bengalas well as the foreign soil of Nepal where alcohol is being sold at a premium.
Interestingly, Bihar’s pronouncement to bar alcohol comes at a time when states such as Nagaland and Manipur are debating whether to continue with full prohibition or not. R Lalzirliana, excise and narcotics minister, Mizoram had reportedly said, “As the prohibition only increased the sale of spurious liquor, we strongly felt the need to lift the prohibition.”
It must be noted that from 1920 to 1933, America had once experimented with prohibition, what they called the ‘noble experiment’. American historian, Thomas Coffey, in his book, The Long Thirst: Prohibition in America, noted that “the death rate from poisoned liquor was terribly high throughout the country during those years. In 1925 the national toll was 4,154 as compared to 1,064 in 1920”.
The complex part with India is that it has a frequent problem of spurious liquor. Even those states with prohibition are witness to deaths caused by hooch. In July 2009, 136 people died in Gujarat after consuming spurious liquor. In June 2015, 95 people died after drinking hooch in Mumbai. After the hooch tragedy in a Mumbai suburb last year, a demand for total prohibition was raised in the Maharashtra assembly.
Experiences of states like Gujarat, Nagaland and Mizoram which shows how prohibition gives rise to bootlegging, corruption and crime, it is not wise to say that prohibition is a good idea. It is also evident from the US’s history that how a surge in demand along with illegalisation of alcohol opened up new illegal markets for gangsters to develop and monopolise. According to American economist, Mark Thornton, the prohibition that was undertaken to reduce crime and corruption, solve social problems, reduce the tax burden and improve health and hygiene in the US resulted in a miserable failure on all counts.
“There is no evidence to show that prohibition has ever had its intended impact. Of course, just as banning beef has reduced beef consumption, banning alcohol will lead to reduced alcohol consumption. But, there appears to be little or no correlation between, say, domestic violence or household impoverishment and prohibition. Instead, there is an enormous cost to society, and here I refer not to the obvious massive losses to the exchequer but to the criminalisation of the majority of people who drink sensibly to address the problems caused by the minority who do not. It is, in effect, equivalent to banning motor cars because a few drive rashly,” Vikram Patel, a public health expert, writes in a leading newspaper. Patel, also a renowned psychiatrist and researcher, works with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the Public Health Foundation of India and Sangath.
Prohibition, as per Patel, is a very poor policy option to address the adverse consequences of alcohol abuse when compared with a range of more effective public health approaches. The ban is rejected by most public health scientists who know this field. Even the World Health Organisation does not approve it.