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Total prohibition of alcohol as a state policy always ends in disaster

Enforcing prohibition citing moral and health reasons has more downsides than benefits and invariably ends in disaster where the state has to reverse its decision

By Guru Aiyar (@guruaiyar)

State enforced prohibition of alcohol can never succeed. Total prohibition is an unmitigated failure. In the current season of electioneering in various states across India, there seems to be a mad race between the political parties to list prohibition as one of their election promises. Take the case of Tamil Nadu which is heading for assembly polls next month. Without exception, all the political parties have committed to prohibition—be it Jayalalithaa of AIADMK, Karunanidhi of DMK or S. Ramadoss of PMK. Of all the leaders, only Jayalalithaa has spoken about graded prohibition.  Vaiko did a dramatic act by asking his aged mother to force shutdown of liquor shops in his native village of Kalingapatti in Tirunalveli in August 2015.

The Kerala government, headed by the Chief Minister Oommen Chandy enforced a ban on alcohol in 2014 except five star hotels. This ban was upheld by the Supreme Court in December 2015.  The CM has promised that he will move towards total prohibition for ten years irrespective of election outcome. Kerala too is having assembly elections in May. Bihar has commenced a two-step plan, with a ban on country liquor effective from April 1, following days later with a prohibition on Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL). This was one of the election promises of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar when he went for Mahagathbandhan (MGB) in November 2015. The reasons that prohibition fails are not hard to fathom. The argument is counter intuitive. One of the best examples where total prohibition failed is the United States of America.

United States enforced prohibition across its 48 states after a lot of deliberation in 1917.  It was repealed after 16 years. The evidence gathered between the period 1920-33 was overwhelming. It was during this period that the true horrors of alcohol were discovered. Alcohol remained available during prohibition. The only difference was that it went underground—black market. People who wanted to drink would invariably find a way to black market where they paid exorbitant prices. The use of methyl alcohol for preparation instead of ethyl alcohol (because methyl alcohol is cheaper) lead to blindness or even death. Mafias thrived on bootlegging businesses. Remember the movie The Untouchables where Robert De Niro plays the dreaded gangster Al Capone. Such was Capone’s clout due to his spurious liquor business that when the long arm of the law finally caught him, he was charged mainly for tax evasion. During this period, use of other drugs also increased. Marijuana, a drug previously used little in the US became popular. Consumption of coffee rose. Ultimately, there was unanimity of political opinion in 1933 to repeal prohibition. So much so that today when one talks of prohibition in the US, he is not taken seriously at all.

In India, political parties resort to the populism of prohibition mainly deriving their legitimacy from the Directive Principles of State Policy. A sense of pseudo morality pervades across the political spectrum on the issue of alcohol consumption.  Advocates of prohibition cite reasons such as alcoholism, indebtedness and intimate partner violence (IPV). But banning alcohol is never an effective check against its use. The case of Maharashtra is classic. Prohibition, which was enforced in the then state of Bombay in 1949 was lifted in 1972. Bootlegging thrived and organised crime in the form of Bombay underworld took over alcohol distribution. There were striking parallels to the US in 1920s era of prohibition. It was doomed to fail in Maharashtra because the neighbouring states did not have prohibition and alcohol could always be smuggled.

In addition, prohibition robs the state of an important source of revenue. In 2015-16, nearly 25 percent of Tamil Nadu government revenue amounting to almost Rs 30,000 crore came from liquor sales. In Maharashtra, the comparative figure stands at Rs. 18,000 crore. These help successive governments to sustain the social welfare schemes. In Tamil Nadu, the government has used the revenues from alcohol sales to distribute consumer goods to the poor, supply free rice to Below Poverty Line (BPL) card holders and the noon meal scheme. Finding alternative sources of revenue is a humungous task in the present times of fiscal consolidation. Anyway, the fact stands out that prohibition has never transformed a society.

Guru Aiyar is a Research Scholar with Takshashila Institution and tweets @guruaiyar

Featured Image:Lame-No alcohol by Karl Baron, licensed from creativecommons.org



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