Monday, May 2, 2016

From the time of Adam, prohibition did not work; awareness campaigns may help, politics won't

Does banning liquor really bring in the votes? We can imagine women feeling relieved that men won't come home drunk and create scenes. But female population is falling notoriously in India, so the votes gained from happy women will be less than the votes lost through resentful men. This is why it is difficult to understand why there is a race among states to declare total prohibition. Vote-wise it doesn't make sense. Revenue-wise it makes nonsense: Bihar will lose 3000 crore a year, 18 percent of its total revenue and Tamil Nadu as much as 30,000 crore, more than a quarter of its revenue. Kerala will lose 6000 crore, although its population is only 35 million compared to Bihar's 94 million.(For the typical Malayali, it's a matter of honour that once a bottle is opened, it must be finished quickly. Per capita consumption of alcohol is highest in Kerala).

Commonsense-wise, prohibition not only does not work; it produces contrary effects. This is because prohibition can only ban liquor; it cannot ban the demand for liquor. Such is the chemistry of the human mind that whenever there is demand, it will be met by supply. Which explains why prohibition has not worked anywhere at any time in history. There is a saying that prohibition did not work even in the Garden of Eden; Adam ate the apple that was forbidden.

The most tragic example of prohibition's counterproductive nature was Bombay under chief minister Morarji Desai in the 1950s. As a Gandhian, he introduced prohibition with conviction. Overnight Bombay's suburbs burst into underground activity. Such was the profitability of the illicit industry that crime syndicates got a stranglehold on life in Bombay. Unintentionally Morarji Desai made it possible for Haji Mastan and Karim Lala and, yes, Dawood Ibrahim to rise. In the official celebration of Prohibition Week every year, the liquor mafia was the most enthusiastic participant.

Gujarat has been under total prohibition for decades now. No one complains because truckloads of liquor arrive from neighbouring states every day to ensure that demand is met by supply. Besides, excise, transport and police officials are always kept happy. Prohibition is a great lubricant.

It is clear that for the Morarji Desais of the world, prohibition is an article of faith, an unviolable principle of life. For today's leaders it is politics. Nowhere is this more evident than in Kerala. For the state Congress President, V.M.Sudheeran, a local edition of Morarji Desai, prohibition is a living tenet. When the closing of bars in the state became a big issue with cases going to the Supreme Court, he took a stand against the re-opening of some 400-plus closed bars. This did not sit well with the excise minister who, neck-deep in scandals, was a confidante of Chief Minister Oommen Chandy. As Sudheeran's opposition to the bars looked like making him a popular hero, the tactician in Chandy announced a sudden policy change: Total prohibition in Kerala in a few years. It was a game of political oneupmanship. It turned into a farce as verbal battles became the focus of attention and Chandy's excise minister devised new ways to please bar owners.

In 1995 then chief minister A.K.Antony banned arrack. Consumption of liquor did not go down by a drop. The flow of illicit brews increased as did the flow of hafta. Registers and computer floppies maintained by smart liquor contractors revealed that in the Trichur area alone Rs 14,000 was going to an assistant excise commissioner, 7500 to an excise inspector, 4000 to a preventive officer, 2700 to an assistant excise inspector and 3500 to a circle inspector every month, in addition to "bonuses" on occasions like marriages. Prohibition promotes bribery as nothing else does.

Public awareness campaigns are the only practical way to tackle the universal social problem of alcohol. Such campaigns have shown results in the case of smoking. A state-funded national advertising campaign in the US called "Tips from former smokers" claimed significant success. The state can create conditions that will enable civil society also to participate in action plans against alcohol. A pro-active government can enforce two policies -- ensure that there will be no demand for spurious liquor, and impose deterrent punishments for offences such as drunken driving. Policies based on mere sentiment will get us nowhere. Abraham Lincoln explained why: "Prohibition goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a mass appetite by legislation and make a crime out of things that are not crimes".