Prohibition: Reviving an idea whose time may have long expired

Nitish Kumar
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By Nirendra Dev

New Delhi–Bihar’s Nitish Kumar government should have been more pragmatic before announcing prohibition as this cost Nagaland dearly in terms of revenue and only helped “bootleggers of neighbouring Assam”, a former minister from the north-eastern state has said.

“I think the Bihar chief minister should have been more careful and done a more in-depth study. This prohibition idea is a folly. Prohibition has either failed as in Nagaland or Manipur or had to be withdrawn as in Mizoram,” Thomas Ngullie, an Independent legislator and former information minister, told IANS here.

Nitish Kumar
Nitish Kumar

“We brought in the Nagaland Liquor Total Prohibition Act in 1989. I was part of the Congress party that brought the law. But that was a mistake. We only helped the bootleggers of Assam and cash-starved Nagaland lost huge revenue,” he added.

Apart from bootlegging, spurious liquor too takes its toll on consumers.

The Naga politician’s lament, though, is not in isolation.

Within minutes of the announcement that prohibition had been enforced in governance-starved Bihar, microblogging site Twitter and social networking Facebook were on fire.

This striking oneliner went viral: Breaking news: Bihar announces massive investments in bootlegging industry.

This has generally been the outcome of prohibition laws wherever they have been imposed or tried.

An IANS report from Kathmandu said that at a recent meeting in Forbesganj in Bihar, Indian authorities sought help from their Nepali counterparts to curb the movement of people seeking alcohol from Nepal.

“Mizoram was reeling under Prohibition for 18 years and one of our governors said: ‘Mizoram is the wettest dry state in the country.’ Not a comment to be proud of. Let’s not indulge in hypocrisy,” wrote Hmar C. Vanlalruata from Mizoram capital Aizawl on Facebook on the day prohibition was enforced in Bihar.

Christian-majority Mizoram declared prohibition under the influence of church bodies but lifted this in July 2014 after 18 years of struggling with its failure.

In another northeastern state, Manipur, prohibition was brought in 1991 and for more reasons than one everyone seemed to believe in its limitations.

There have been reports of bootlegging and also increase in drug abuse.

In July 2014, Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh stated in the Manipur assembly that his government favoured exploring options of lifting prohibition. He also had suggested that the country liquor produced in Manipur by scheduled castes and tribes be sold in other states “for revenue”.

While the state was declared dry, scheduled castes and tribes were permitted to brew liquor for traditional purposes.

This situation continues till today.

Prohibition had beeen in force in what is now Tamil Nadu since pre-Independence days and was lifted in 1971. It was again briefly imposed in 1974 before being lifted. Chief Minister J. Jayalalitha has promised to turn the state dry if she is voted back to power in the assembly elections later this year.

Prohibition was imposed in Haryana in July 1996 by the government headed by then chief minister Bansi Lal, who had ridden to power on the promise of a dry state. However, it remained in force only till March 31, 1998. One of the reasons is that neighbouring Punjab has one of the highest per capita consumption rates of liquor, so it was always easily available.

Rajasthan briefly flirted with prohibition in 1977-79.

Bombay State – now Maharashtra and parts of Gujarat – briefly imposed prohibition from 1948 to 1950 and again from 1958 to 1960.

With Maharashtra and Gujarat created on May 1, 1960, today there is prohibition in only three of Maharashtra’s 36 districts – Wardha, Chandrapur and Ghadchiroli.

Gujarat is quite a different story. Prohibition is as old as Independence and the fact that it is violated openly is also as old.

Just like home-delivered pizza, illicit liquor is just a phone call away and the industry has grown exponentially. There are scooter-borne small bootleggers in thousands delivering one and two bottles of your choice. Then there are the sophisticated ones by who come dressed like a guest to your home to ensure nobody notices their purpose and deliver stuff nearly packed in grocery bags and flower bouquets.

Some bigger suppliers have got tech-savvy: They keep lap-top computers and employ GPS to keep track of where the supplies have reached. The police is well aware of this, and so are ministers and bureaucrats.

Gujarat looses Rs.5,000 crore ($750 million) in excise income to implement the dry law. The government tries to recover this from its 52 Permit Shops, where liquor is officially sold to 70,300 permit-holders.

Revenue loss is also what Kerala will have to deal with by deciding to impose total prohibtion by 2023 when all the 730 bars will shut down and liquor will only be served in 29 five-star hotels.

Kerala may be shooting its cash cow.

“Alcohol helps in giving Kerala’s economy a good high – shockingly, more than 40 percent of revenues for its annual budget come from booze,” a posting on the BBC website said.

In all these states, experience shows demand for prohibition is mostly guided by populism and surrendering to the pressure tactics of influential groups.

Little wonder then, that celebrity Rishi Kapoor retorted in the context of Bihar: “Any law which tries to stop the people from doing something is bound to fail.”

But for the moment, more politicians are falling for prohibition policy’s double-edged sword. (IANS)


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