Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar on Thursday announced a ban on the sale of alcohol in Bihar, which will be enforced from April 1, 2016. The ban on alcohol was one of the Chief Minister’s major poll promises. “My government is committed to fulfilling promises made to women during the election campaign,” said Nitish Kumar. “There was a surge of complaints from women about male members of the family resorting to drinking and creating a nuisance, which also affected the education of their children. Though the excise department can earn Rs 4,000 crore per year, we have to think in terms of public interest and take this decision.” Suffice to say, there is some truth to the Chief Minister’s claims. The massive sale of liquor, especially those that are country-made, and the consequent rise alcoholism, is a major social ill in the state. It is hard to argue against Kumar’s claims that alcoholism in the state particularly affects poor families and women, who have to bear the brunt of alcohol-abusing husbands. However, is prohibition the way to go? Fortunately, the delayed start in the enforcement of such a ban acknowledges that the modalities of enforcing it need to be worked out. The government will need to work out how it will make up for that loss in revenue, and then cracking down on illegal sales or an alcohol black market. However, as the history tells, enforcing a total prohibition on the sale of liquor comes at a cost not only in terms of revenue foregone but also the spread of illegal sales or an alcohol black market that could emerge as a result of the decision. In fact Article 47 of the Indian Constitution urges the government to prohibit the consumption of alcohol in the interest of public health, and many states in the past have tried to enforce it. However, this provision has, for obvious reasons, withered away.
If the government does indeed ban the sale of alcohol in its entirety, the liquor trade in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Jharkhand, West Bengal, and Nepal will rejoice. Prohibition has never succeeded anywhere in the world and it will only mean huge revenue losses to Bihar, already India’s poorest state. Gujarat is India’s only “prohibition” state. News reports, however, have claimed that the prohibition lobby in Gujarat is financed by the bootlegger lobby. The ban has clearly not worked with liquor is freely available all over Gujarat. Going beyond India, the experience in America, where prohibition was imposed in 1920, and lasted till 1933, was that it gave rise to the mafia gangs which thrived during this period. Suffice to say, such a policy measure will never work, least of all in Bihar, and will only socially legitimise criminal activity. There are other ways of curbing drinking such as higher taxes, limiting the construction of outlets and drinking places, and banning the sale of arrack or hooch in plastic pouches. The last state to introduce prohibition was Andhra Pradesh and it was a miserable failure. In fact, what we witnessed, as a result, was the rise of wealthy politicians, who stood to benefit. The road to disaster is paved by the need to implement policy decisions with good intentions.
Moreover, with no intervention by the state, there will be no official quality control on the sale of alcohol, making it a free for all. A bottle of whiskey, for example, might include a little rum, which is not harmful. But a packet of arrack or hooch sometimes contains poison that can kill people. Gujarat has witnessed repeated hooch-related tragedies. In 1989, 257 people died in Vadodara from drinking spurious liquor and 157 people in Ahmedabad in 2009. Although the Gujarat government responded to these deaths by increasing the penalty for making spurious liquor from a 10-year imprisonment to the death sentence, it has not eliminated the hooch-related incidents. Suffice to say, if complete prohibition is indeed enforced, the state will stand to witness many more deaths, with the poor bearing the brunt of it. The Nitish Kumar government must engage in more debate and discussion before enforcing a complete ban.