India’s prudish alcohol laws that preach Victorian morality and insult intelligence

An ancient law, unlike aged whisky, is not really a fine rare thing; it’s a liability.

WrittenBy:Arunabh Saikia
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It’s criminal for anyone under 25 to procure alcohol in Delhi. And it is hardly the only absurd piece of legislation when it comes to alcohol in India. Laws governing booze consumption – in bars and in private places – are uniformly silly. You need a consumption permit to drink alcohol in Maharashtra. It’s not a well-enforced rule but it is one nonetheless. This essentially means a cop can use it against you if he doesn’t like your face. In 2011, a young adult, dining with his family in a Mumbai restaurant, was picked up by a cop, who happened to walk in to the establishment, and put in lock-up for the night. That’s the thing about bad laws: they may not always be applied, but when they are, it’s always arbitrary and you never know when you get screwed.

Recently, the Delhi tourism minister, Kapil Mishra, speaking at the annual general meeting of the National Restaurants’ Association of India, said the government is contemplating bringing the drinking age down to 21. The minister’s comment has unsurprisingly not gone down too well. Satish Upadhyay, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Delhi president said, “I don’t know what kind of Delhi they want to make. Do they want to make it an alcoholic Delhi? If we reduce the drinking age, it will create a bad impact on society.”  Shazia Ilmi invoked Anna Hazare – who is known to flog people for drinking – to criticise Mishra. “I’m astounded that this party [AAP] has arisen from Anna Hazare’s movement when Anna ji is completely against alcoholism,” she said.

Since alcohol is a state subject, the legal drinking age varies from state to state. In three BJP-governed states – Madhya Pradesh, Haryana and Goa – the legal drinking age is 18. In most other states, it is 21.

States/ UTLegal drinking age
Andhra Pradesh21
Arunachal Pradesh21
Himachal Pradesh18
Jammu and Kashmir21
Tamil Nadu21
Uttar Pradesh18
West Bengal21
Madhya Pradesh18

The most common argument against lowering the drinking age is that people under 25 are not “mature” enough to handle alcohol. The ridiculousness of the argument is so apparent that it is unlikely that even people who use it think it’s a bright way to make their case.  The same legal system, after all, lets one vote, be part of the government-forming exercise, make babies, and do a host of other things that require much more maturity.  Often, this outdated law leads to hilarious situations: a righteous hotel manager once refused to serve a friend drinks in her own pre-wedding bachelorette.

Though 25 to 21 is a step in the right direction, it is also not enough. It completely discounts the fact that most people start drinking in college – and that one should be able to do so without breaking the law of the land. The mercurial entrepreneur Rahul Yadav founded and gave up on the real estate start-up before he turned 25. It is ludicrous that the guy who built a Rs-15,000 crore company isn’t legally allowed to celebrate his success with a bottle of beer.

Curiously, many Indian states think it’s all right for people to smoke cigarettes at 18 but not have a beer.  Medical studies prove that cigarettes are much more addictive than alcohol for most people. Also, cigarettes kill way more people every year globally than alcohol.

People opposed to the idea of lowering the drinking age also claim, among other things, that it would lead to alcoholism. It is a bizarre contention. There are no credible studies, which suggest that countries with lower drinking ages have higher instances of alcoholism.

The real problem, though, is not just unscientific opinions. It is a strange appropriation of Victorian morality that many of our laws, including the one that stipulates Delhi’s minimum drinking age at 25, represent. This law – the Punjab Excise Act – is as old as 1914 and like most colonial laws, arcane in spirit and outlook.  It was never something the British would impose upon their own people. For the record, the legal drinking age in Britain is currently 18, and 16-17 year old are allowed to have alcohol in a licensed establishment if they are accompanied by anyone above 18.

It is, however, unfair to blame just the government for the law still being in effect.  Alcohol is one thing most otherwise progressive middle-class households continue to remain stuck up about. The Times of India, in 2011, had started a campaign called “It’s My Life” (okay, I concede they could have come up with a more imaginative name, but come on, they meant well) seeking lowering of the drinking age. It had received flak then for “promoting” a “social evil”.  It is again a claim that’s embedded more in morality than in any hard data.

At the heart of this prudish attitude towards alcohol is the larger Indian pattern of avoiding complex sociological problems.  The best way, it seems, is to avoid uncomfortable situations altogether. Alcoholism is admittedly a concern, but one can’t wish it away. Not by keeping an outlandishly high legal age of drinking at least. Similarly, most Indian cities are not safe for women at night. The government’s solution: shut everything down by 12 and let only shady operations run under the patronage of local cops. In reality, it is no solution at all; most modern cities across the world are functional all night. Empty streets with shut shops don’t make women feel safe. It’s the opposite, in fact. The government knows it but it will never accept it because it will involve more than just evading the problem.

India’s puritanical alcohol laws steeped in Victorian morality are past their time. And an ancient law, unlike aged whisky, is not really a fine rare thing; it’s a liability.


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