Could prohibition mean profiteering?

Tags: Op-ed
Could prohibition mean profiteering?
TIPSY TOUCH: Most people cite that wherever prohibition has been imposed, it has failed due to various factors, particularly in India. But prohibition has failed because it has been reluctantly imposed and dishonestly policed
In the mid 1930s, an American journalist asked Bapu if in an independent India, he would impose total prohibition on the sale and consumption of alcohol. Bapu answered emphatically, “yes”. Today his insistence on complete prohibition would draw a huge outcry of indignation and anger. Free flowing, unrestrained availability of alcohol and its consumption without any restraint is termed as ‘religion’ these days. In such a society, prohibition is a word seen as more insidious than even dictatorship. As a matter of fact, I am sure that a majority of Indians would prefer to live under a tyrant, than suffer the tyranny of prohibition.

As a result of his travels throughout India and experiences in South Africa, Bapu had realised that alcohol consumption and its abuse was one of the major causes of poverty and the misery suffered by poverty stricken families. He realised that his dream of ‘ram rajya’, completely different than the Sanghi version, would never come true in a society where alcohol was abundantly available and consumed in large quantities. During Dandi March, he made his volunteers destroy palm trees, locally called khajuree, in every village he crossed. Traditionally, its sap was tapped and fermented, which was the favourite hooch of the villagers. Bapu identified this as the root of the evil and decided to do away it, so palm trees were chopped down in every village they passed.

He made the villagers take a vow of abstinence and made the village women responsible to ensure that alcohol was not made or sold in the villages. Even after the Dandi Kooch of 1930, when he allowed women to participate in the freedom movement, he tasked them with picketing shops selling foreign goods and liquor. He firmly believed that if poverty were to be tackled, the curse of liquor abuse would have to be dealt with very strictly.

Post-independence, the government realised the potential of revenues generated by legalised sale of alcohol. After a token pretence of prohibition was made, fortunately for them, soon Bapu was murdered and there wasn’t anyone to reprimand them. Thus, prohibition was removed state after state. Gujarat is the only state left where an insincere pretence of prohibition still remains and the blame for the ‘suffering’ of the poor Gujarati, starved of availability of legally procurable alcohol, is laid on the door of Bapu. Ironically, alcohol is freely and openly available in huge quantities in the state and is consumed in equally huge quantities. The poor drink illegal and often fatal hooch while the rich consume better variety. Prohibition in Gujarat is celebrated more in its breach than in its implementation. It is not that prohibition cannot be implemented, but the fact remains that it has never been honestly implemented. Prohibition has always been seen as a lucrative source of corruption and the means of making huge fortunes. When such a ban is imposed, the ‘black’ economy profits and when prohibition is removed, the bootleg economy still thrives, but the government too earns huge revenue.

Last week, the Kerala government declared its intention to turn the state into a ‘dry’, alcohol-free area, and rolled out a ten-year plan for total prohibition. A debate has erupted and there are very few voices that defend prohibition. Most people site that wherever prohibition has been imposed, it has failed in some way or the other, particularly in India. The fact is that prohibition has failed because it has been very reluctantly imposed and very dishonestly policed. There has never been an efficient and prolonged campaign about the evils of alcohol abuse. Even though cigarette packs now have horrifying photographs of mouth and lung cancer, liquor packaging does not show photographs of liver cirrhosis. Such packaging doesn’t have narratives of accidents and crimes committed by inebriated persons. There are no retro warnings of ill effects of alcohol consumption either. Yes, we don’t allow alcohol to be advertised, but with surrogate advertising, alcohol brands very cleverly advertised non-alcoholic brands, which are actually adverts for their alcohol products.

As soon as the government of Kerala declared its intention of imposing total prohibition in the state, the issue of revenue loss has been sighted as a rational argument against prohibition. Kerala will stand to lose Rs 8,000 crore, it is said, if it imposes prohibition. No one cares about tabulating the loss caused to human life by alcohol abuse. The excuse for not imposing prohibition is that we must let people be ‘responsible’ consumers. But how can an addictive substance ever be consumed responsibly? Those who argue about unaffordable revenue loss to the exchequer due to alcohol abuse should then campaign for the government to legalise narcotics and sex trade too, and tax them as well. I am sure the legal sale of narcotics and licenced sex trade will also generate huge revenues; after all, nothing earns more than vice. In that case, the question remains: should a government also be a bootlegger, a drug pusher and a pimp?

(The writer is founder president, Mahatma Gandhi Foundation)


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