Why some people support prohibition and why it finds political backing

Ban is a strong expression. The moment someone throws a “ban” at us, the rebellious teenager inside us begins to oppose, even if it is something we personally may not approve of.

For example, going vegetarian had become fashion of sorts. Cuddly articles on various celebrities embracing vegetarianism appeared with great regularity. Famous people got themselves photographed naked to show how much they love animals.

But the moment you say that meat might be banned (though there is no real threat), even those whose multiple generations have not eaten meat get outraged. And it’s not outlandish, for the basic idea here is personal liberty and freedom of choice.

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Similarly, people these days are alarmed at the prospects of liquor being banned. To be honest, unlike the ‘meat-ban’ that is outcome of fake news and exaggerations, this is a banning possibility that is already materialising.

Recently Bihar declared itself a dry state. The sale of liquor is prohibited in Gujarat. Kerala has set a plan in motion that aspires to stop the legal sale of liquor in 10 years (the campaign kicked off in 2014). You cannot legally sell alcoholic beverages in Manipur and Nagaland. The same is the case in Lakshadweep.

The latest state to join the bandwagon is Chhattisgarh. The Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh too recently declared that all liquor shops in the state will be phased out, although he hasn’t set a deadline. Add to these, the Supreme Court has ordered that no liquor shop can operate within 500 metres of the National Highway.

If this goes on, barring Punjab (Punjabis cannot survive without liquor), the entire India will be covered under the ominous pall of liquor ban within a span of 10-15 years.

Now this is worth outraging.

One wonders why would a government indulge in this? What makes it further intriguing is the fact that this (prohibition) has been implemented by various governments headed by leaders cutting across political and ideological divides.

According to 2016 figures, the state of Uttar Pradesh makes a revenue of Rs 14,083 crores from the liquor business. Madhya Pradesh, that is heading towards a total prohibition, earns a revenue of Rs 7,926 crore. Why are they willing to let go an important source of revenue?

Then there are arguments about how prohibition creates a ripe ground for smugglers, bootleggers and corrupt cops. The entire underworld of Mumbai has its roots to the days when gold import was banned. The same Mumbai underworld has been involved in not just causing riots but also providing logistic support to terrorists.

Another problem that may arise out of liquor ban within our current democratic constraints is that people would tend to purchase illicit alcohol with greater frequency, needlessly exposing themselves to life-threatening, poisoned liquor, especially those who don’t have access to illicitly procured refined liquor at higher cost.

Do governments or political parties don’t realise it?

Obviously they do, but they also realise that people who would be happy with prohibition perhaps far outnumber those who would be unhappy. In the end, it is the politics that wins, not the economics.

This is where we need to find out what makes people support prohibition. Can we address their concerns while we fight against prohibition? Let us look at the arguments that favour banning alcohol.

Liquor consumption certainly has its social problems. Women from the lower strata are attacking liquor shops because lives and households have been ruined. Women and kids are the biggest victims of alcoholism in many instances. I’ve lost two cousins because of alcoholism in Punjab. Talking of Punjab, the entire State of Punjab is on the verge of ruin – the last time I visited one of its major cities, there was a liquor shop every kilometer, literally.

Yes, you may say that just because some people cause accidents we can’t ban all vehicles and in the same manner just because some people can’t control themselves liquor shouldn’t be made unavailable to everyone, and I totally agree. The same conflict happens in the US where many people believe that the right to own guns should be abolished but the others believe that just because certain people misuse guns doesn’t mean the right to own guns should be taken away from people who use these arms responsibly.

Irrefutably, certainly problems are associated with alcohol consumption. Although alcohol consumption is widespread, it is not as mainstream as, let’s say, drinking tea or coffee. People believe that many civil crimes (I’m not talking about robberies, dacoities and other premeditated crimes) happen when people have had a good share of daaru.

All sorts of shady elements frequent liquor shops and in fact, this is the reason finding a “wine shop” in the neighborhood is not as easy as finding a kirana shop. All liquor shops have a dark aura around them and they normally operate at the peripheries of civilization. You will never find a Christmas tree decoration or a Diwali decoration in front of a liquor shop. People don’t give liquor bottles as gifts during festivals unless they are property dealers, pimps and underworld bhailog. There is a reason why. Gifting alcohol bottles isn’t same as gifting a box of sweets. I have a friend who puts an ilaichi or a spoon of saunf when he leaves after having beer with me because he respects his parents too much to let it be known to them that he has consumed beer (left to my father on the other hand, if it weren’t for my mother and now, for my wife, he would have turned me into an alcoholic for sure).

Hypothetically, whether one agrees with the ban or not, if liquor is banned it will be the proverbial “chaandi” for smugglers, but on the flip side, how many people actually have access to these smugglers and bootleggers? In most of the cases, it won’t be worth the effort to contact a criminal or a shady cop for the evening party. Having alcohol during regular soirees won’t be as casual as it is now. People will actually enjoy each other’s company instead of getting drunk. During marriages and festivals people won’t be able to create a nuisance in the garb of being drunk (“O ji zara zada ho gayi thi, bura mat manna“). No Punjabi marriage is considered complete without a drunken broil!

On a serious note, we have to realise that a large part of the country we live in is not only conservative, but has some serious social problems that they are seeking solutions to. The problem is more severe in rural areas where 45% people indulge in excessive drinking compared to urban areas where just 23% people indulge in excessive drinking (source). 20-30% hospitalization cases are due to alcohol-related problems. According to the National Crimes Records Bureau 15 people die every day due to alcohol consumption and the figures are rapidly rising (source).

Remember Anna Hazare, much before he got on the national television thanks to Kejriwal and company, he was lauded for converting his village Ralegan Siddhi into a “model village”. He got Padma Bhushan award for that way back in 1992 itself. And guess what, prohibition is a part of that model village. Not just that, people consuming liquor have been tied to a tree and flogged!

We have to realise that the rural and suburban India sees alcohol as root of many evils — and they could be mistaken — but their concerns have to be addressed before we teach them about liberty and choice.

In their experience, they have seen alcohol not as a matter of choice, but matter of public safety. They see alcohol when a husband in inebriated state beats up his wife and children, when people crash their cars into other cars and motorbikes when drunk, when people lose control of their senses and end up committing a crime like brawl or molestation. For a large part of the population, alcohol is seen as a right to enter into your private territory and cause damages.

Their fears are real and not imagined. A report says that 70% of all the road accidents that happen in India happen due to drunken driving, with official figures (which basically means actual figures could be much higher) of fatalities being 1.34 lakhs every year. This led to the Supreme Court passing orders of closing down wine shops near national highways.

We need to convince — first ourselves and then these people who support prohibition — whether the social issues are entirely related to alcohol and whether prohibition helps in improving the situation.

For example, many people claim that prohibition makes law and order condition better. I’ve heard — and I could be mistaken because I haven’t experienced this myself — in Gujarat women can safely roam around at midnight. Many claim that lots of credit for this goes to unavailability of liquor. Though, it isn’t confirmed whether the low crime rate against women in Gujarat is because of prohibition or a generally better law and order situation.

Let me again make it clear that I am not in favour of prohibition. No matter what civil or legal problems a particular tendency brings to the table, banning something is always a double-edged sword. It should always be a road less taken, and preferably, a road that should be avoided. When you take the banning route, you can trigger a chain of events that will be difficult to stop. Every other interest group would demand some sort of banning.

With this article, I am just trying to highlight why this particular banning finds resonance and support with many people. We need to address those issues.

Let me end with a little anecdote that I want to share.

I used to have a help from Bihar during Lalu’s infamous jungle raj time. Once he was telling me that in rural areas in Bihar, it wasn’t advisable to go out after 4 in the evening because it wasn’t safe and if you went out after 4, and if something happened to you, it was your fault. He had internalized the concept that the law and order problem and social dynamics are never going to change and he didn’t even consider them as problems. He had accepted them as an existential reality and instead of wanting to change them, he preferred “banning” of movement after 4 pm.

Banning liquor is like that. It’s like deciding to not to go in a dark alley full of criminals instead of lighting up the alley and ridding it of criminals. If we go on avoiding alleys like these, one day, we will have no place to go.


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