Will it work? Unlikely
Four days after the promulgation of partial prohibition in Bihar on April 1, the State government on Tuesday decided to impose a total ban on alcohol in towns and cities. The government led by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar had banned the sale and consumption of country and spiced liquor in rural areas from April 1 this year, but had allowed the sale of foreign liquor in towns and cities. “But, the tremendous response of people particularly women and children against liquor in Patna and other towns in a short period of four days only convinced us that a conducive environment against alcohol has been created in the state and that’s why we decided to go for total ban on liquor after four days only,” he said. On "toddy" which has created controversy in recent days following intervention of Rashtriya Janata Dal president Lalu Prasad Yadav against its stoppage, Kumar said the state Cabinet decided to strictly impose the 1991 guidelines which allow consumption of "Neera" (drink from palm trees before sunrise) but disallows consumption of "toddy" (after sunrise when the palm tree liquid gets fermented and gains alcoholic properties). As per the 1991 guidelines, the sale and consumption of "Neera" is prohibited within 50 metres of places like hospital, education institutions, religious places among others in towns and 100 metres radius in rural areas, he added. The Chief Minister said "Neera" would be allowed while "toddy" drink would be barred. How the State government will implement this delicate policy directive remains to be seen. Prohibition is close to the Chief Minister's heart and political agenda. It was a key promise he made to women voters, who are seen to have played an important role in his winning a third term in November last year. "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,” he said. “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 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 in the State 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 is it the way to go?
The government will need to work out how it will make up for that loss in revenue, besides cracking down on illegal sales or an alcohol black market. However, as history has told us time and again, enforcing a total prohibition on the sale of liquor comes at a cost not only in terms of revenue that was foregone but also the spread of illegal sales or an alcohol black market. 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 one of India's most impoverished states. 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 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 organised crime that thrived during this period. It is hard to see how such a policy measure will ever work, least of all in Bihar. Moreover, it 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.
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. For example, Gujarat has witnessed repeated hooch-related tragedies.