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Gujarat: a disaster case study for amending alcohol policies

Gujarat: a disaster case study for amending alcohol policies in India

Repeatedly, one or another hooch tragedy passes us by in India, devouring in its wake many lives and orphaning families. This manmade disaster is a direct consequence of alcohol policies of India that need to be immediately changed. I will focus on Gujarat as a case study to reflect on the worst of the alcohol regulation policies in India.

Not many years ago, Gujarat’s Narendra Modi led government took a completely misguided step to make crimes relating to illicit liquor production and sale punishable by death, while continuing to exacerbate the root social causes of illicit alcohol spread. Modi continues prohibition that encourages illicit alcohol use and mafia growth associated with its trade. It is important to note that Modi did not pass the prohibition law per se but has upheld the prohibition that is in place from the time of Morarji Desai. Additionally, the state assembly has not and cannot pass separate laws that decide the extent of punishment for a crime at state level. Only the federal assemblies of Lok Sabha and Rajya sabha can make such changes to the constitution. What the state assembly under Modi’s misguided leadership actually did, was that it now asks prosecutors to press for murder charges and not criminal negligence for alcohol related deaths. At a cursory look, it appears to be a good step, as I can deeply sympathize with the logic that anyone who kills poor people, directly or indirectly, should be held accountable for manslaughter. Looking a bit closer, the reality is quite different. The implication of such law in the existing Indian legal system is that scapegoats and some poor end-executors of the offense and not the masterminds get the book thrown at them. If one looks at people who are booked under this law, there is no single fat cat facing the wrath of the book so far. Gujarat High Court, not to be left behind the legislative, recently urged a stricter implementation of prohibition, as if prohibition is the cure of the problem of alcoholism.

While the central thesis of this article is to make a case to focus on curing the disease and not its symptoms, I will briefly address the question of the death penalty being an appropriate symptomatic cure of alcoholism. Executions have four obvious shortcomings: the criminal does not have time to regret his mistakes, there is no opportunity to transform the mind-set and behaviours of the criminal, there is no chance to overturn the judgement if contrary evidence is found and finally, life imprisonment is an equally powerful deterrent. Death penalty should only be reserved for those who mastermind killings on the name of religion, caste and deepen other divides of the Indian society, as there is no changing of the heart of those socio-paths but only getting rid of the gangrenous tissue. Unfortunately, all such masterminds get a clean chit from supine corrupt Indian courts and get to live long lives. Indian justice system is geared towards punishing the poor end-executors of a crime, and many a times trapping completely innocent scapegoats, whether it be for crimes relating to alcohol or a communal riot or anything else. Not just Gujarat, one can look at hooch tragedies of Bengal, to ask how many big businesspersons have ever been booked for such crimes. The answer is zero.

Getting back to the central thesis of the article, I would argue that prohibition and punishments are an effort to cure the symptom and not the disease. I will argue that prohibition measures are actually counterproductive and not just futile. In the end, you have to make up your mind after educating yourself on the issue and fight the incompetent politicians, bureaucrats, judiciary and police, the way you deem fit.

The use of prohibition and extreme punishment as a reaction to alcohol problem is not unique to India. Historically across the globe, a war has been waged on the name of fighting the evils of alcohol by employing heavy incarceration and death penalty. In the US, the prohibition era saw laws passed with heavy penalties for bootlegging. Interestingly, alcohol consumption went up during that era and so did the crimes associated with bootlegging. Worst of all, the bootlegging mafia was actually behind the imposition of prohibition and strong punishments associated with bootlegging. This mafia could get the law selectively imposed, as happens in Indian dry states now. The mafia controlled several politicians and both through violence and political connections eliminated the competition that would have existed in a fairer and freer market. This experience was not exclusive to America or to the Western hemisphere but has been and is currently true for many developing countries too. Whoever remembers lessons of history, so I suspect we are bound to repeat the mistakes multiple times with unaware and complacent citizenry.

Prohibition has been an utter failure in India too and having heavy penalties for bootlegging is at its best, an ill-conceived treatment of cultural symptoms and at its worst, tool for the mafia to expand their criminal activities. One only needs to follow the money trail to find who are drumming up support for prohibition in India and who funds the prohibition advocacy charities of Babas, Mullahs and Rajnetas in New Delhi and one would know the intentions. A brief look at Indian history would show you that it is not that different from the US experience. Morarji Desai’s decision to ban alcohol in the Bombay Presidency in the early 50s was the chief cause of the growth of the smuggling syndicates and the likes of Haji Mastan, Vardarajan, Karim Lala etc., who were the founding fathers of the Mumbai underworld. This started the funding of the Godfathers who eventually bred the likes of the criminals who once temporarily dented the plural unity of India and with serial bomb blasts dimmed the spirit of Bombay.

In India, prohibition is implemented in many states in the form of “dry days”. Gujarat and a few of the Northeast states, have a full prohibition on the consumption of alcohol for their residents. Andhra, Tamil Nadu and Haryana have in past, with rather disastrous outcomes, also tried prohibition only to quickly have it repealed. Another form of prohibition is extremely steep pricing of legal and safe alcohol. This comes in the form of heavy taxation, along with setting the price of ingredients such as molasses exorbitantly high. This is directly responsible for selective death of poor people. In the absence of safe affordable alcohol, poor people binge on unregulated alcohol or hooch. In the Bengal tragedy of 2011 that killed over 170 people, the fear of police brutality due to the illegality of hooch was so high that victims did not even go to the hospital after starting to exhibit symptoms of alcohol poisoning. Whether this prohibition is a road to hell paved by good intentions or it is simply malicious conniving scheme by special interests is not obvious in all cases but what is obvious is that it is clearly it is a counter-productive approach. If we want to save lives, we need to keep safe alcohol legal, spread education on alcohol abuse and then implement a strong punishment for illicit alcohol trade that targets the owners of such operations and not the poor workers. Punishment for illicit alcohol, in the absence of safe alcohol does not work and only supports mafia.

In a simple-minded way, one may view the solution to make the poor people to simply quit drinking alcohol. Not that different from Sanjay Gandhi’s infamous compulsory sterilization approach. We know that despite religious injunctions and governmental regulations, alcohol consumption has not decreased. I am not promoting alcohol use and would wish all its abuse went away, but I am making a case for what has proven to be effective – an evidence-based alcohol policy. Simply looking away or implementing a knuckleheaded and malicious prohibition would not solve the problem.

Apart from the price issues, let us briefly look at reasons why the economically backward stratum is especially vulnerable to the illicit alcohol consumption. Some of the reasons are true for the entire developing world, while some of the religious ones are more specific to India. First, alcohol offers a transient escape from the everyday grind of what may be quite rightly considered a very sorry existence. Consumers crave many substances of abuse when they are under emotional stress. Given that bad planning has resulted in uneven economic growth, the massive migration of young men away from their families creates an environment where men have minimal familial and societal bonds. Alcohol related crimes and abuses, especially domestic abuse, occur most often in places with poor gender equity. India, with its remnants of feudal mind-set, is consistently trailing more than 100 other countries when it comes to gender equality. Despite large-scale economic development, the mental and philosophical outlook of many Indians is sadly stuck in a past era. There is not an easy fix to that issue expect education and social mobility. Wide scale, holistic education and women empowerment are desperately needed to solve the problem. Another reason for alcohol abuse is that the current versions of almost all major religions in India make alcohol a taboo. This results in the consumption of alcohol in hiding, instead of moderate social consumption like that in Mediterranean European nations that embrace the positive aspects of alcohol. Prohibition, social taboos, a lack of education and lack of gender equity, poverty, and the outrageous pricing policy of alcohol that specifically targets poor people are all ingredients in the recipe for making a hooch tragedy. What is direly needed is to lift the heavy taxation that selectively targets poor, police abuse of the poor, and prohibition regulations. Equally direly needed are education, gender equity and economic empowerment of poor, so the need of single young people to migrate away from families and being involved in irresponsible is reduced.


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