We Indians are masters at avoiding uncomfortable topics. We would rather be hypocrites and liars than discuss something uncomfortable. One such topic we have learnt to avoid is consumption of alcohol. In public, we condemn anything to do with alcohol. In private, millions of Indians enjoy their drinks. This includes not only businessmen and corporate types, but also politicians, doctors, teachers and journalists.
One of the casualties of this hypocrisy is that prohibition laws in certain parts of India are never discussed. Places where liquor is still banned are: Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland, Lakshwadeep and the modern-vibrant Gujarat. That Gujarat has such a policy is particularly baffling, especially since the state projects itself as one of India’s most advanced.
The reasons cited to keep the 1960 prohibition law in place remain the same. The abuse of alcohol, particularly amongst the less affluent, can destroy households. Prevention of crimes against women is a reason to justify the ban. Alcohol-related health problems, and the potential for addiction are well known. With so many noble reasons to have a ban, one almost wonders why we don’t have it in other states too?
However, virtuous intentions aside, there is another side to it. That is, the ban doesn’t work. In fact, the extent to which this ban is defied is ridiculous. Alcohol, though bootlegged, is easily available in Gujarat. I have attended various events in the state, where surreptitious bar counters were arranged for the party afterwards, complete with bartenders and cocktail mixes. High-profile citizens of the city enjoy their evening tipple and discuss life and work. However, instantly, these respectable people also turn into law-breaking criminals. This happens because of an outdated law, which doesn’t even apply to over 90% of India’s population. When we are encouraging our citizens to break one law, how will they ever respect the other laws? Will it not eventually lead to an ‘anything goes’ society, which seems to be a big reason for India’s problems today.
When hundreds of millions of people around the world can handle a few drinks and run organizations, companies or even countries the next day, why does the state have to impose laws to curtail consumption in a particular region? Excessive fat and sugar consumption is leading to many diseases, some even life-threatening, around the country, Gujarat included. Why not control those substances too? Why are cigarattes and tobacco-laced paans available at every street corner in Gujarat? What’s the point of a ban that doesn’t work anyway? Will we ever ask these questions or keep harping on a modern Gujarat but never change what needs to be changed there?
Controlling consumption, of a substance that is legal and is consumed by millions around the world, is not what a modern state would do.
There are many direct losses due to this law. The state loses thousands of crores of excise duty which, in turn, has to be recovered by making other goods and services more expensive. Gujarat is trying hard to promote itself as a global investment destination and a tourist hub. For both these industries, the ban on alcohol has an adverse effect. Indians are ok with the hypocrisy of routinely breaking the law. Many foreigners are not.
Foreign tourists do not find it exciting or normal to have bootlegged alcohol. Gujarat’s beach destinations, for instance, will never thrive unless the alcohol policy is lifted. Tourism creates jobs. With this law in place, we are preventing employment to thousands of Gujarat’s youth.
Similarly, even as an investment destination, this policy is harming Gujarat. There is no global finance city – whether London, New York, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore, Shanghai, Seoul or Mumbai — where alcohol is banned. Global bankers do not want to live in a place where they are doing something illegal every time they attend a party. If Gujarat is serious about becoming a worldclass business destination, it needs to benchmark its laws to world-class locations.
Notably, even the US experimented with prohibition, from 1920 to 1933. The reasons cited were the same as present-day Gujarat. However, the ill effects were the same too. As a result, the laws were repealed. This is what John Rockefeller, initially a supportersof prohibition, had to say at the end: “When prohibition was introduced, I hoped that it would be widely supported by public opinion and the day would soon come when the evil effects of alcohol would be recognized. I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe that this has not been the result. Instead, drinking has generally increased; a vast army of lawbreakers has appeared; many of our best citizens have openly ignored prohibition; respect for the law has been greatly lessened; and crime has increased to a level never seen before.”
Many would agree the above applies to Gujarat too. Politics will delay change. Even though the state elections just ended, the 2014 national elections, and Narendra Modi’s involvement in the same means there is little chance of reform of these laws. However, we must openly debate this, and reach a conclusion that is practical, and helps in the country’s progress. I do not endorse drinking. Neither do I consume much alcohol. I do however endorse freedom, change and modernity. And that is exactly what Gujarat needs to do.