“What sort of society are we living in? There are people dying all over the world every day due to Covid-19. Except for medical and grocery stores, every commercial establishment has been shuttered for ages. But suddenly, our government realised that long-suffering alcoholics must be in deep anguish, having to go without a drink during the lockdown. So the compassionate rulers of our blessed nation empathised with their plight and decided to open up liquor shops. Friends, Indian and countrymen, lend me thy drunkards.”
This is what a cantankerous elderly gent bellowed into his phone while standing in queue before a grocery shop. His rant didn’t end there.
“Think about it, stationery shops are closed. If I want to buy a pencil or a notebook or a textbook for my grandkids or a novel for myself, I can’t. But if I want to get drunk, I just have to get in line. When I heard of this news this morning, I thought it was a news parody. Alas, satire has become our reality. This is a recipe for doom. Our law enforcement officers are already overburdened; now they will have to mediate between drunken brawls and wild parties going overboard. This is pathetic!”
So, does the gentleman have a point? Did the powers that be get their priorities all wrong?
We travel back in time to the United States of America of January 17, 1920, when the consumption of any containing more than half a percent of alcohol was forbidden. It was the beginning of the era of Prohibition. But the real challenge, as always, was not the passing of this draconian law but its enforcement.
Across America, government officials were deployed to ensure that alcoholic beverages were not served or sold. But, as always, those determined to have a drink managed to find a way. Illegal drinking dens had long flourished in big cities, and began to spring up all over the country. Historians estimate that by 1925, there were as many as 100,000 illegal bars in New York City to cater to patrons from all strata of society.
From the very beginning, elements of organised crime had recognised that Prohibition represented a golden opportunity to raise money, especially in major cities. For weeks, they had quietly stockpiled liquor supplies to be sold illegally. The handsome profits achieved from the sales of this liquor was used to fund their lavish lifestyle and several other criminal activities.
In the end, Prohibition in America may have archived the desired effect of reduction in , but the undesirable consequences by far outweighed any possible gains.
Back to India, after the imposition of the nationwide lockdown this March, shutting down businesses that were not deemed “essential”, there were several parties that incurred huge losses. The obvious losers are the businesses and the individuals associated with the establishments. But the other big losers, often forgotten, are the state and central governments.
, 29 states and union territories collected a total of Rs 1.76 trillion through excise duty on liquor. The average monthly collection in 2019-20 was Rs 15,000 crore, according to the Reserve Bank of India; the pre-coronavirus projection for 2020-21 was even higher. In fact, the excise duty on alcohol is the source of a state's own tax revenues, with an estimated contribution of 12.5 percent in 2019-20.
Thus, the reopening of liquor shops and the overwhelming response from customers is a boon for the government. Think of it this way: These revenues of people buying products of their own volition are infinitely better than mandatory taxes being applied to an entire people. The revenue earned can be used for myriad purposes such as providing bailouts to businesses hit, aid for those rendered unemployed, free travel for migrant workers to their home states, and perhaps to fund the subsidisation of Covid-19 testing, and even the enhancement of coronavirus quarantine and treatment centres.
What about the argument that alcoholics will abuse this facility, get inebriated, and indulge in bad behaviour? Much like the United States during Prohibition, those craving a drink will find a way to get it. The affluent will have their wine cabinets stocked and will be able to procure their intoxicants through private sources. But it is the poor who will suffer.
In fact, hiking the prices by slapping heavy taxes may be as good as Prohibition since those with means will continue to purchase alcohol legitimately. It will be the poor suffering from acute withdrawal symptoms who will be compelled to buy and other illicit varieties of alcohol. The effects of this can be dire. There will be loss of life and our already overburdened healthcare system will have to dedicate resources to tending to patients — a situation that could have been avoided. As always, the trading of illicit alcohol only helps in enriching criminal elements and corrupt government officials.
There were other serious problems too. The queues that erupted into ruckuses in front of liquor shops had blatant violations of social distancing norms. This opens up the possibility of a greater spread of Covid-19, and squandering of the gains made due to the lockdown and the revenues earned by the sales.
The solution is that more shops must be permitted to engage in the liquor sale. That will reduce the accumulation of people outside a single outlet. Like regular shops, the authorities must make liquor vendors responsible for enforcing social distancing norms.
Now about the matter of the government permitting the sale of alcohol before that of stationery items and books. The moralists of the world will claim that inebriation is being given priority over education. But in times of a crisis such as this, when government coffers need instant replenishing, it only makes sense to allow the sale of items that fetch the most revenue.
Also, this can be a matter of relief for those alcoholics suffering from withdrawal symptoms. If these individuals are left without drink, it would be a burden to our overwhelmed healthcare system and a cause for social disturbance. There has been no scientific study that has reported any unfavourable changes in behaviour upon not being able to purchase stationery items or books.
Even after we have dealt with this pandemic, it is imperative that our leaders rethink their attitude towards alcohol. The first step is to lift prohibition such that they can earn revenue and regulate the sort of alcohol that can be consumed.
For those suffering from alcoholism, there needs to be education about rehabilitation centres. These centres need to be made affordable; in fact, portions of revenues earned from alcohol sales need to be dedicated to funding rehab centres.
Much like the effective Clean India movement, there needs to be a campaign that helps change attitudes towards alcoholism. People need to be educated about the fact that, quite often, the problem is deeply psychological and needs treatment rather than ridicule, condemnation or harsh punishment.
Alcoholism needs to be termed an ailment and not merely bad or irresponsible. In fact, Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to destigmatising addiction during his to the nation during his monthly Mann Ki Baat radio programme.
In a free country, responsible adults should be allowed to do what they please as long as it doesn’t hurt others. This includes the purchase of alcohol. What about those who will get inebriated and cause a grave nuisance to others? That is a risk we have to be willing to take; we cannot deny responsible adults of their rights just because a few irresponsible or ailing individuals will abuse it.
Also Read: Toppling The Tipple In Kerala