Nitish Kumar said on Thursday that the state of Bihar will implement a ban on alcohol. The state earns a revenue of Rs 4,000 crore annually from the sale of liquor. However, the CM has said that in the interest of women and the poor, the state government will impose ban on liquor from 1 April, 2016.
In India, alcohol consumption is prohibited in Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram and Gujarat and the union territory of Lakshadweep. According to the BBC, the state of Kerala announced in 2014 that it plans to impose a state-wide prohibition on the sale of alcohol in the next ten years. Immediately following the plans to ban alcohol in Kerala, bar owners and hotel owners petitioned the order and it was finally diluted to allow bars to sell beer and wine.
Representative image. AFP.
The State (India) has always had a problem with alcohol; this is partly due to MK Gandhi’s vociferous stance against the consumption of alcohol, which he made amply clear in his autobiography. Kushwant Singh wrote in his book, India: An introduction that Gandhi considered alcohol to be “an unmitigated evil”. After independence, the Government of India adopted his views into the Directive Principles of State Policy, though not enforceable as law, are often the guiding principles behind the laws. Article 47 states that the “State shall endeavour to bring about prohibition of the use except for medicinal purposes of intoxicating drinks and of drugs which are injurious to health.”
In the past, Andhra Pradesh tried to enforce Prohibition between 1958 to 1969 and then from 1994 to 1997, but the grand project was abandoned primarily because of bootlegging and excessive corruption. Gujarat has been a ‘dry state’, but according to Nalin Mehta and Mona G Mehta in the 2013 book, Gujarat Beyond Gandhi: Identity, Society and Conflict there is significant trade, production and consumption of alcohol in the state and refer to the existence of “illicit alcohol” that is not subject to quality control. So, essentially a ban is clearly not the solution as the Mehta’s note in their research, where a health official they interviewed said that alcohol abuse contributes to 50 percent of liver failure cases in the state.
One of the major reasons cited by political parties is that they want to impose alcohol bans for the benefit of women and that it would help bring down the domestic violence incidences. It is true that one of the first ‘collective women struggles’, the Telangana and Tebagha rebellions where women joined in to raise their voices against alcohol and price rise. In Manipur, the ‘Meira Paibis’ rallied on to put an end to the sale and consumption of alcohol, the objective? According to an Economic and Political Weekly article, it was to “curb social evils like domestic violence resulting from alcoholism”. This ‘woman argument’ is not just specific to India, Carrie Nation in the US ‘hatcheted’ bars and led the movement to ban alcohol in Texas in the early 1900s.
Well, this is great for women, they are being saved from domestic violence, you might think. But, that is an easy train of thought to catch. Such arguments only understand women’s roles as mothers, daughters and someone related to a male member i.e. the much hated/abused word in the feminist movement: patriarchy. This argument also seeks to colour the problem of domestic violence as something ‘external’. So essentially, it is the alcohol which is making men abuse their wives and daughters. Doesn’t this argument sound familiar? It’s not the rapist, it is the clothes.
Mangai, a theatre practitioner and women’s activist brings out an important point that these bans ultimately don’t tackle with the real problem at hand: which is not consumption of alcohol, but alcoholism. “The state is not addressing the issue of substance abuse or how the younger generation is getting affected by it. There needs to be a demarkation between the consumption of alcohol and alcoholism that leads to the women of the household bearing the brunt of the situation,” she says. Perhaps, the State should work on awareness-oriented solutions than banning a product and therefore opening itself up to a host of other problems: corruption, boot-legging, illicit-alcohol related deaths.
Currently, what we have is a conflict between the increasingly economically liberal economy of the country that is still straddling with the vestiges of Gandhian principles. But the alcohol industry is a tough revenue to do away with. The Tamil Nadu government estimates liquor earnings at Rs 21,800 crore, Kerala yields Rs 8,000 crore and West Bengal’s revenue is Rs 2,600 crore.
Reasons for the bans could be many, but essentially bans on alcohol come from a place of imposing certain values on the society that a particular group deems fit. However, it is important to note that alcohol is not the problem, its abuse is. Even in our rich history, as Mangai says, there was no morality attached to the consumption of “kall” (toddy), men and women, both, consumed it without accruing social judgement upon themselves. Sangam literature has enough poetry to justify its use without the claustrophobic clauses of morality.
The questions that we need to ask are how can we solve the problem of alcoholism and how do we differentiate between social/casual/occasional drinking and abusing a substance. How can we regulate a product without creating a ready-made platter of corruption and illegal trade for the taking?