Gujarat’s long-standing policy of alcohol prohibition has taken a knock from the state’s high court. Yet even as justices call prohibition’s effectiveness into question, chief ministers of other states are not being deterred from pursuing similar policies.
India’s constitution says “the State shall endeavour to bring about prohibition of the consumption…of intoxicating drinks and of drugs”, as part of its “duty…to improve public health.”
Despite this, the sale of alcohol is legal across most of India. Alcohol prohibition is enforced in only five of its twenty-seven states and just one of its seven union territories.
Gujarat is one of the most notable examples of dry states in India; alcohol prohibition laws have been in effect there since its formation in May 1960. Gujarat was one of two states comprising Bombay State (the other being Maharashtra), where the Bombay Prohibition Act 1949 proscribed the sale and consumption of liquor.
Bombay was dissolved into two states in 1960. Maharashtra later amended the law to allow the restricted sale of alcohol. Gujarat, on the other hand, keep it as is.
No “positive results”
Almost sixty years later, the policy “has not been able to yield positive results”, according to Gujarat Justice J. B. Pardiwala. He goes on to weigh in, “either the policy is not effective or something is wrong with the implementation of the law.”
Some suggest it is Gujarat’s close proximity to the Daman district of the union territory of Daman and Diu, which is to blame for the ineffectiveness of Gujarat’s prohibition laws. Justice Pardiwala highlights this, calling Daman “one big hub where liquor is available and in abundance.” He charges that “large quantity of liquor is illegally brought into Gujarat from Daman.”
To rectify this, the high court recommends incorporating Daman into Gujarat, so that the same laws apply. It calls on the Indian government to “consider this issue at the earliest before it is too late.”
Bootlegging and the risk to public health
Would incorporating Daman into Gujarat be an effective solution?
An argument to be had is that alcohol prohibition is, by nature, ineffective. One could reasonably argue, even if alcohol were outlawed in Daman, it would simply come from somewhere else. One of the major problems of alcohol prohibition is that it creates a market for bootleggers, in the same way that the war on drugs creates a market for drug lords.
A report on the consequences of prohibition in the U.S. identified flourishing criminal activity centred on smuggling and bootlegging and the consequent clogging of the courts with drink-related prosecutions” as one of the policy’s major consequences. In Gujarat, a similar phenomenon is occurring. Justice Pardiwala spotlights this: “out of 3,99,221 criminal cases pending as on February 28, 2017…55,645 cases are under the Bombay Prohibition Act.”
Forcing the production of alcohol underground is also potentially lethal, as Gujarat knows. The consumption of bootleg alcohol fatally poisoned 136 people in Ahmedabad, the state’s largest city, in 2009. Many did not look to prohibition as the cause, and state authorities doubled down on efforts against bootleggers. However, it can be argued that, if the manufacturing and sale of alcohol were legal, bootleggers would not be in business and moonshine would not be produced.
“A big jump in cases in substance abuse”
A final argument against alcohol prohibition is the chance that alcohol consumption will be replaced by something worse.
In the newly minted dry state of Bihar, drug abuse is believed to have spiked following the passage of controversial prohibitionist measures there last year. The Financial Express writes “a big jump in cases of substance abuse, ranging from cannabis, inhalants, sedatives to opioids” are being witnessed in the state’s alcohol de-addiction centres since prohibition. Dr. A. K. Shahi, quoted by the Express, says “About 25 per cent of cases in…de-addiction centres now are related to abuse of other substances.” He goes on to speculate, “since alcohol is not available in Bihar anymore, these people might have moved to other substances.”
Compounding this problem is the reality that many of the state’s de-addiction centres lack the services of a psychiatrist. This is despite the fact that alcohol addiction is considered a psychiatric disorder.
Other states “moving towards” prohibition
Banning alcohol can arguably have disastrous effects on the public health, which far outweigh any benefits. Despite this, other states are looking to follow the leads of the current five dry states.
Chhattisgarh is “moving towards” prohibition, according to Chief Minister Raman Singh. As part of this, alcohol is no longer being sold in any village with a population exceeding 3,000.
Meanwhile, Shivraj Singh Couhan – the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh – has reaffirmed the state’s commitment to prohibition, which will be enacted in phases. This will eventually see the closure of all liquor shops in the state.
It is easy to understand why some think alcohol prohibition is a good idea. One Indian is thought to die every 96 minutes due to alcohol consumption. Indeed, those who drink heavily endanger both their health and safety and the well-being of others.
Yet bootleggers have been prospering off the back of prohibition in Gujarat for many years. The case is getting to be the same in Bihar. Meanwhile, illicit alcohol poisoning continues, and the misuse of narcotics is on the rise.
If alcohol prohibition benefits anybody, it’s bootleggers. For now, public health suffers.