Of populism and prohibition

Across India, States are marching towards total prohibition. >Kerala has embarked on a 10-year path to total prohibition , by first limiting the sale of “hard liquor” to five-star bars and restaurants and gradually reducing the number of sale points. >Bihar initiated a two-step plan , with a ban on country liquor effective from April 1, followed just days later with a prohibition on the sale of Indian Made Foreign Liquor, bureaucratese for everything other than country brew. Indeed, in a sign of the moral panic that grips political parties at the mention of prohibition, the Bihar Assembly’s successful adoption of the Bill banning country liquor was accompanied by a unanimous resolution by MLAs that they would not consume alcohol. Now a similar competitiveness is playing out in the Tamil Nadu Assembly election campaign. The ruling >AIADMK has countered the >DMK’s pledge to turn the State dry by affirming a graded shift. This is not the first time India has grappled with the social consequences of alcohol consumption, such as alcoholism, indebtedness and domestic violence. For example, vestiges of prohibition-era practices survive in States such as Maharashtra, though the law tends to realistically look the other way; Gujarat of course continues to remain dry. In recent decades, States such as Haryana and undivided Andhra Pradesh adopted a prohibitory regime, but abandoned it soon after. Whether the current spate of prohibition legislation will sustain is unclear. But once again, the populist solution of prohibition is being offered without attendant focus on the social problems that it seeks to address.

The creep of the nanny state to guard citizens from their worst selves, or at least their lack of self-discipline, is worrying. It is perhaps the overhang of the Gandhian spirit of the Directive Principles of State Policy in the Constitution that inhibits politicians and civil society from shedding hypocrisy and initiating public advocacy of moderation. However, there is a pragmatic case against prohibition as well. Banning the sale and consumption of alcohol has, in this country’s experience, not been an effective check against its use. It has only criminalised the activity, with disastrous consequences for individual health, the economy and administration — these include bootlegging, liquor mafias, spurious liquor, and a complicit police. It also deprives States of an important source of revenue. For instance, in Tamil Nadu nearly Rs.30,000 crore, or >over a quarter of its revenue in 2015-16, came from taxes on the sale of alcohol and excise on manufacturing spirits. This income has enabled successive regimes from 2006 onwards to splurge on social sector schemes, especially the trademark programmes to supply free rice to nearly all ration card holders, distribute consumer goods and maintain its pioneering nutritious noon meal scheme for all children in government and aided schools and anganwadis. Certainly, alternative sources of revenue must be found if prohibition can virtuously, magically transform society. That case has, however, not been made, in argument or by experience.

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Printable version | Apr 23, 2021 1:11:38 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/Of-populism-and-prohibition/article14246059.ece

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