The story so far: The Manipur Cabinet headed by Chief Minister Nongthombam Biren Singh on September 20 decided to lift the prohibition partially for generating at least ₹600 crore in annual revenue. The decision did not go down well with organisations such as the Coalition Against Drugs and Alcohol (CADA) and Meira Paibi, a social movement meaning ‘women torchbearers’, in a State used to the extremist-dictated ban on liquor since 1991.
How did prohibition come about?
Manipur is geographically and psychologically divided between the Imphal Valley and the hills around it. Valley-based extremist groups, primarily the People’s Liberation Army, hijacked a mass movement against liquor and imposed a total ban. This led to the Manipur People’s Party government headed by R.K. Ranbir Singh enforcing prohibition in the State on April 1, 1991. The sale, brewing and consumption of liquor were subsequently banned for all residents excluding people from the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities who have been brewing it traditionally but not commercially. Total prohibition has been in place in two other north-eastern States flanking Manipur — Nagaland since 1989 and Mizoram, which reimposed total prohibition in 2019 after partially lifting a 1997 ban for four years from 2015. The church played a key role in imposing prohibition in these two Christian-majority States. There is no prohibition in the other five States of the northeast.
Did Manipur make a similar bid earlier?
Biren Singh’s Bharatiya Janata Party-led government is not the first to have pursued partial prohibition since the Manipur Liquor (Prohibition) Act, 1991, came into existence. His predecessor, Okram Ibobi Singh’s Congress-led government amended the Act to lift prohibition in five hill districts — Chandel, Churachandpur, Senapati, Tamenglong and Ukhrul — on July 31, 2002. The Ibobi government sought to remove prohibition from the rest of the State to ensure a “steady source of revenue” to lessen the “dependence on Central largesse”. It also contended that lifting the ban would allow local Manipuri brews such as ‘yu’, two varieties of which came to be associated with Assembly constituencies Andro and Sekmai, to be sold across the country. A wave of protests by civil society groups made Ibobi Singh drop the idea. Biren Singh tried to lift prohibition after coming to power in 2017. His bid to bring in the Manipur Liquor Prohibition (Second Amendment) Bill, 2018, met with stiff resistance from civil society and women’s organisations.
What prompted the renewed push?
Ahead of the Cabinet decision on September 20, Biren Singh recalled his unsuccessful attempt to lift prohibition during his first term as Chief Minister. Announcing the decision, Tribal Affairs and Hills Development Minister Letpao Haokip said the prime driver of the move was to increase the State’s revenue by at least ₹600 crore annually. The State government feels it will also mitigate health hazards caused by the consumption of adulterated liquor. He said prohibition will be lifted from all the district headquarters, including Imphal, tourist destinations, hotels with at least 20-bed lodging facilities and camps of security forces. He insisted that the permit system would be made robust, particularly for liquor transporters. The Cabinet also proposed exploring the possibility of exporting traditionally-brewed liquor. The members of a Cabinet Sub-Committee were sent to Goa a few weeks ago to study the “scientific brewing” of local liquor.
How have the pressure groups reacted?
While extremist groups, pushed beyond the India-Myanmar border, have taken a backseat in Manipur, pressure groups have reacted strongly to lifting the prohibition and legalising the country liquor business. The focus of organisations such as the CADA is more on the local brews than the possible availability of India-made foreign liquor in stores. The CADA’s contention is that if country liquor is brewed commercially on a large scale for “export”, it could lead to the shortage of some indigenous Manipuri rice varieties and create a famine-like situation. The Meira Paibi, on the other hand, does not want the government to make liquor flow in a State battling drug abuse. But anti-prohibitionists point out that the ban on liquor has not necessarily made Manipur — like Nagaland and Mizoram — a dry State. Alcoholic beverages of all kinds, most likely adulterated, are available at a premium, they said.