Prohibition In Kerala: A Retrograde Step

by Brigadier Ajit Nair - Jun 6, 2015 12:30 PM +05:30 IST
Prohibition In Kerala: A Retrograde Step

Why Prohibition in Kerala is bad for the state and its society. 

The proposal to impose Prohibition in Kerala is a retrograde step indeed. It may possibly help in winning the next election, as any emotive and divisive step could (and it is both), but the State will pay a heavy price – in the short term certainly, and maybe for decades to come. It’s certainly not a well-thought through decision. It is as if politicians refuse to learn lessons from the bitter experiences of other States in India and of other countries. Kerala has the highest per capita consumption of alcohol in India and steps must be taken to curb it – but to impose Prohibition is to throw the baby out with the bathwater; a dangerously simplistic solution to alcoholism.

Oommen Chandy’s stated aims are laudable – they relate to crime, health; and most notably productivity. And so too is his unstated aim – to prevent the poor from wasting their meagre emoluments on alcohol to the detriment of their family’s well-being, as also drunken ill-treatment of wives, who presumably will all vote for the Congress. But his method smacks of a sheer desire to win the upcoming election and then repeal Prohibition when its widespread ill-effects start to become tangible, since he’s too intelligent not to know the consequences. And since he’s prepared no grounds by taking other actions to address the problems he mentions.

(Credits: WIkimedia Commons/KJETIL REE)
(Credits: WIkimedia Commons/KJETIL REE)

The case of the United States of America is illustrative. They imposed Prohibition in 1920 till 1933. It led to the rise of “La Cosa Nostra”, an FBI pseudonym for the Mafia, who amassed so much wealth and power during those years that they dominated American crime for most of the 20th Century. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, their vast assets (money and the well-organised Syndicates) were astutely redeployed in prostitution, narcotics, extortion and in every other aspect of organised crime, including organised murder. Their power weakened only in the late 20th Century with the sensational disclosures and testimony of Joe Valachi, a Syndicate member, who broke the Mob’s ‘omerta’, the code of silence.

And drinking in USA in the Prohibition years certainly didn’t stop – it merely reduced marginally and went underground, leading to large-scale smuggling, huge loss of revenue for the State (but a spurt in revenue for Canada and Mexico), a rise in home-made ‘stills’ and spurious liquor (and consequently deaths from it), increased crime because of gang and turf wars, a surge in costs and potency of liquor (because of reduced availability), problems of law-enforcement (including massive corruption among politicians and law enforcement agencies) and the end of self-help societies. Prohibition created a black market that competed with the formal economy, in sheer size and volume – unseen and below the surface, but virulently malevolent.

With such well-documented evidence available on the destructive nature of Prohibition, it’s a wonder that first Andhra Pradesh, and then Haryana, briefly experimented with, and then quickly repealed Prohibition, after starting to experience the same consequences. It was worse, in their cases, because a country can seal its borders to some extent; a state cannot. A classic case of “a fool learns from his own experiences, a wise man learns from the experience of others”.

Gujarat is the only State in India that has had an unbroken Prohibition law since its creation in May 1960, presumably to honour its greatest citizen – Mahatma Gandhi. From all the written evidence available, Gujarat faces the same problems that the US did (albeit, in lesser measure) and reportedly, alcohol is freely available in the state. Because there is no excise duty on alcohol, IMFL (regular brands) in Gujarat is cheaper than in the rest of the country inspite of being smuggled in (unlike in the US, where it became costlier – because duty on alcohol in India is very high; at 30 – 50 %). Today, Prohibition is so deeply entrenched and such a lucrative business for all the important players, including politicians and the law enforcement agencies, that it can never be lifted.

Tamil Nadu, which had Prohibition since even before Independence and lifted it briefly in the 70’s, 80’s and the 90’s, finally repealed it in 2001. Excise Minister Viswanathan informed the Assembly in August this year:

“the State government is aware of the ills of liquor, but it allows regulated sales only to prevent hooch tragedies, and because of the impracticality of total prohibition. With no prohibition in force in the neighbouring states, Tamil Nadu cannot go for it, as it would result in flow of liquor into the state from Kerala, Puducherry and Karnataka.”

Shortly, it will be a flow from TN to Kerala, since only three districts in Kerala do not have a contiguous border with Tamil Nadu (or Karnataka).

In AP, Chief Minister N T Rama Rao imposed prohibition in the State on January 16, 1995 and his son-in-law Chandrababu Naidu continued the policy after taking over as chief minister by dethroning NTR. But on April 1, 1997, Naidu lifted Prohibition. His contention was that the sale of liquor was fetching as much as Rs 3,000 crore per annum to the State and that could be spent on various welfare schemes in the State (and drinkers be damned !!). In fact, during the Prohibition years, AP went into debt and had to borrow at prohibitive rates from private banks.

Does Kerala insist on wanting to be the next crucible of this vitiating experiment which has invariably failed ? Can’t it learn from AP and from the most recent failure – Haryana ?

Prohibition was imposed between 1996 and 1998 for a period of 19 months by Chief Minister Bansi Lal, based upon an election promise he had made to his voters. The illegal trade in liquor from Uttar Pradesh and Punjab spawned a mafia-like network that had the protection of politicians in the state. After a drubbing in the Lok Sabha elections for Bansi Lal’s HVP, prohibition was reversed in Haryana. To offset the loss of revenue, the government raised taxes and fees for various state-provided services – power tariff was increased by 10-50%, bus fares by 25%, and petrol sales tax by 3%. New taxes were levied on businesses and self-employed people. There was an alarming increase in deaths, resulting from the consumption of spurious liquor, especially by the poor. Illicit brewing and liquor smuggling into the State became one of the biggest industries of Haryana.

The effect of Prohibition on law enforcement is extreme. When politicians need money to fight elections, they turn to the mafia and thereafter become indebted to them and protect them. Honest policemen register myriad cases against violators, while dishonest ones feather their nest. The judicial system breaks down – in the face of thousands of complaints, and prosecution of the guilty is rare. Since there is no special police force to fight Prohibition, demands on them become exorbitant. Law enforcement therefore becomes the first casualty and Prohibition can never be effectively enforced.

Occasional, casual or moderate drinking is certainly not ethically or morally wrong by any reasonable standards, even of health (though not by some religious standards). In the absence of alcohol – ganja, heroin and other psychotropic substances will gain currency. And these will have a much greater negative impact, in addition to being cheaper. The ways to counter the impact of alcoholism are laid out by the WHO – education, banning of advertising (even ambiguous advertising, which is prevalent), age limits, time limits and availability, and increasing social awareness are some of the methods advocated.

In Kerala, labour reforms are sorely needed – to induce some industrialization and are the solution to low productivity and unemployment – since tourism, on which Kerala is heavily dependent will take a huge hit, because of Prohibition. In a lose-lose situation, the State will lose heavily on revenue, and illegal hooch makers, smugglers and distributors will gain immensely and the poor will suffer. Oommen Chandy’s stated laudable aims relating to crime, health and productivity can never be achieved. Crime will increase, and neither health nor productivity will be affected. No hard-core drinker will give up, only the moderates would, who in any case were doing no harm – to themselves or to others.

The “Kerala model” has unique social positives, because while its GDP and per capita income are low even by Indian standards, its Human Indices are more akin to the USA than to India. It is this ‘model’ which made the UNDP work on HDI as the basic for developmental policies, rather than GDP. Even the Millennium Development Goals incorporate many of the “Kerala model’s” unique features. It is these enormous social strengths that eradicated illiteracy, that the government must work on to combat the scourge of alcohol, rather than banning it – an easy but totally ineffective method, smacking of ulterior motives.

In the final analysis, making illegal what many people really like to do is counter-productive. If someone wants to drink – rich or poor, then he will drink – come hell or high water. The desire to not want to drink or to drink in moderation must come from within and can never be imposed from without.

The goal of the government and of social reform groups must be to try and instill this desire in the common man.

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