An accommodating approach
While the need for social distancing and isolation is undeniable, responsible authorities in India must conditionally open up parks and allow the limited sale of liquor
The month-long Coronavirus lockdown in India, though largely necessary and desirable, has its fault lines of over-reaction in several areas. The over-reaction was partly the result of the sudden lockdown on a four-hour notice which even optimistically speaking is nowhere near enough forewarning. Yet the public at large has shown remarkable patience and resilience in accepting the hardships that followed. People accepted the Prime Minister's first 21-day lockdown in a spirit of resignation, despite the onerous hardships that accompanied the great shutdown.
Over the weeks some relaxations have been announced and welcomed but much more can be done for good reason. First of all, the lockdown of public parks and green spaces need to be urgently ended. Parks are the lungs of cities and even smaller towns. Children, adults and older people all need them badly for a breath of fresh air and good health, not to mention a break from the straining monotony of being trapped at your own home.
Across the country, parks have been locked by over-cautious municipal and police authorities. Their common defence is that people get together rather too close and too often and ignore social distancing. That certainly is an over-reaction which grossly underestimates ordinary citizen's innate sense of self-preservation, desire for good health. and, one may add, intelligence. With so many people walking with masks everywhere, only a very few would ignore social distancing. The case for parks and open spaces for health reasons is too strong and not opening the green spaces is simply counterproductive and likely to have negative effects in the longer run.
Now to another over-reaction. It concerns a small minority of the nation. It perhaps concerns only about 15 per cent of the population. Though a small proportion, it is important nevertheless. It is about the beer, liquor, toddy and arrack drinkers of the nation. Far too often they are dubbed as drunkards. This is nought but vilification, gross injustice and falsification of facts. It's monstrous mutilation of reality. 'Som Rasa' has been the renowned drink in India since times immemorial. Most Indians do not drink by choice. Good luck to them. Nobody is forcing them to drink, nor should they prevent others who want to drink. Live and let live is the minimal basis of any civilised society.
The prejudice against drink and drinkers is a majoritarian belief that has no scientific basis. Liquor is consumed all over the world from China to Europe and the rest of the world, without the stigma appended to it by the holier than thou self-proclaimed guardians of religion and morality. Unfortunately and perversely, the stigma is propagated by a combination of forces belonging to established religions of the world. It's time to call a halt on this majoritarian juggernaut of judgement.
And there is the economic argument too. In the national capital Delhi alone there are 860 liquor shops that have been shut for over a month. With a turnover of Rs 5,000 crore per month, the liquor vends or outlets yield revenues of Rs 500 crore to the state every month. Multiply that, at a rough guess, by one thousand for the whole country, and the nation loses cumulative revenues totalling Rs 500,000 crore per month.
India's alcohol market, according to analysts, Coherent Market Insights, is valued at Rs 2, 897,236.6 billion and expected to grow 7.8 per cent over the period 2019-2027. A staggering amount that the country needs today to repair the economy ravaged by the Coronavirus pandemic. The market includes a sizeable soft drinks segment. Currently, the industry directly employs 20 lakh workers besides sustaining 40 lakh farmers engaged in growing sugarcane, barley, hops and other produce, according to the Confederation of Indian Alcoholic and Beverage Companies (CIABC). The All India Brewers Association on its part has lobbied Chief Ministers of several states from Kerala to Punjab across the country to open the market through home deliveries and regulated outlets while insuring social distancing.
As it stands, the liquor business is a state subject and Assam and Meghalaya had opened liquor shops for a regulated few hours every day. But the Central Government intervened and closed the state window. Other state governments had also been planning to relax the lockdown both for revenue earnings and for meeting the genuine needs of customers who want to pay for it. In Delhi, the Confederation had urged Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal to allow the opening of liquor vends but without success so far. Some major relaxations are expected to be announced next month on May 3. Whether they will include liquor sale is anybody's guess.
For the current state of economy and restoration of normalcy, lifting of liquor lockdown is a godsend remedy at a desperate moment in our history. At stake is not only a business worth billions of rupees but also the freedom for millions of people to live life the way they want to in a time where circumstances are dialling up the stress of daily life. Let the majoritarian mindset not play spoilsport for the minority and let social democracy prevail along with social distancing.
Views expressed are strictly personal