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Excessive measures

 MPost |  2016-08-08 22:19:52.0  |  New Delhi

Early last week, the Bihar Assembly passed the stringent Bihar Excise and Prohibition Bill, 2016, to enforce its total prohibition policy. Back on April 1, the state government imposed a ban on country-made liquor. Within days, the ban was expanded to cover Indian-Made Foreign Liquor. But in a bid to answer its critics, who had claimed that such penal laws and administrative measures did not prevent alcohol consumption, the Bihar government has doubled down on its prohibition policy. The Nitish Kumar government has pushed through a Bill so stringent that some have called it draconian. 

Reports indicate that this piece of legislation will supersede all previous Acts on the subject. The new Bill takes the discourse on prohibition to a whole another level. Some of the provisions of the current Bill are indeed excessive. One provision that stands out is that legal action can be taken against all adult members of a family, if liquor is found on their premises or one of them is suspected to have consumed it. Suffice it to say, such a provision amounts to collective punishment. It presumes that all the family members must be aware of the offence until proven otherwise. Standard norms of criminal jurisprudence state that a person is innocent, until proven guilty. 

Similarly, the owner of any piece of property on which liquor is stored or consumed is liable for prosecution. In other words, anyone could land up in jail because one family member, tenant or a visitor decided to have a drink on the premises. Authorities have been given the power to seal or confiscate the property for repeated transgressions. However, there is a notable exception to the new law--toddy. The consumption and sale of this drink is permitted 100 to 200 metres away from the markets and public places. Reports indicate that the move was brokered by Kumar’s alliance partner, the RJD, to protect the livelihood of Scheduled Caste communities, particularly the Passis. 

Despite the criticism meted out to the Nitish Kumar government, Bihar is not the first state to embrace the idea of prohibition. Many political parties have sought to move their respective states towards liquor bans. The ban on liquor in the apparent interest of protecting public health may seem like a politically prudent move. In Bihar, for example, prohibition was a key promise Chief Minister Nitish Kumar had made to women voters, who were seen to have played an important role in his reelection last year. 

The massive sale of liquor, especially country-made, and the consequent rise in alcoholism is a major social ill in the state. It is hard to argue against Kumar’s claims that alcoholism particularly affects poor families and women, who often bear the brunt of alcohol-abusing husbands. Reports indicate that many women, especially in the rural areas, are pleased with the prospect of total prohibition. But such a policy is fraught with ill-fated consequences. Experts contend that there is a significant drop in crucial revenue, the formation of mafias with illegal sales and a spike in outright corruption. The only possible consolation of Bihar’s new liquor ban is that officials who misuse it will be punished. But it still does not prevent the possibility of gross misuse. As this column has argued before, prohibition has never succeeded anywhere in the world and at any point in time. Gujarat is the only other “prohibition” state in the country. 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 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 organised crime. It is hard to see how the Bihar Chief Minister’s decision to double down on his prohibition policy will ever work.

There are other ways of preventing 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 policies 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 whisky, 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. For example, Gujarat has witnessed repeated hooch-related tragedies.

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