A Greek legend says that Baachus introduced the grape and civilisation at the same time to the peoples of Asia. Titian’s famous painting, ‘Baachanal’, which has been hailed as a landmark in the history of art, was inspired by that legend. The painting portrays revellers beside a stream of wine, which, according to Philostratus the Elder, flowed on the island of Andros. It is said to depict the exaltation of the spirit of civilisation itself.
Given the weakness for wine (or toddy, if you please) that the civilised and high-spirited Malayali is accused of, one wonders whether Andro thuruth (Malayalam for island) was located in the Kerala backwaters. But, truth be told, the Malayali loves not only his liquor but also his liver. In what other language than Malayalam would a man address his sweetheart as enteponnukaraley (my golden liver)? Some say that this is why the UDF Government decided in 2014 to protect the liver of the Malayali by closing down all the bars in Kerala. But not everyone shares that perception. A Polit Bureau member of the CPI (Marxist) party, which leads the LDF Government currently ruling the State, says, “The hasty decision on the ban on liquor outlets and bars taken by the then UDF Government had more to do with inner party rivalry within the ruling Congress than any well thought-out scheme of social engineering.”
The LDF has already announced a more liberal liquor policy, which it says, stresses voluntary abstinence rather than prohibition. The policy will be implemented from July 1, 2017.
Kerala’s Chief Minister, Pinarayi Vijayan has averred that though prohibition is a laudable objective, it is not easy to implement it. This attitude has been characterised by many as proof of shirking of responsibility by those in authority. There is also much criticism in the air from religious and apolitical groups concerned about the growth of alcoholism in the State. This is perhaps the right time to reflect on what would be a rational policy regarding prohibition. To me, it seems that a policy of moderation, whether it be in imbibing liquor, or in imposing a ban thereon, would be ideal.
First, let us consider the arguments in favour of prohibition. The Constitution of India does contain an exhortation under Article 47 that states, “The State shall endeavour to bring about prohibition of the consumption except for medicinal purposes of intoxicating drinks and drugs which are injurious to health.” The very next Article (48) contains a similar exhortation to the State to “…endeavour ….to take steps for…prohibiting the slaughter of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle.” Hence, those supporting the ban on beer may not have the moral right to question the ban on beef! Jokes apart, it is to be noted that both these Articles have been placed in Part IV of the Constitution under ‘Directive Principles of State Policy’, which are not enforceable by any Court. Besides, the language used (‘shall endeavour to’) is advisory in its tone. Both these facts would seem to suggest that the Founding Fathers, being aware of the difficulties involved in implementation, preferred a policy based on moderation in respect of these issues.
Those who support prohibition also argue that the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, had taken a clear stand in favour of that policy. I would like to quote from an article that M K Gandhi wrote in ‘The Mathrubhoomi’ on September 19, 1927. The then Excise Minister of Madras Presidency had stated that in case the Abkari laws existing then were amended to restrict the provisions relating to possession and consumption of alcohol, the general public would be subjected to great harassment from the police and other authorities. The minister added that this would be an inevitable side effect of a policy addressing prohibition. Hence, he requested for the assistance of the public, not for picketing in front of liquor shops but for stopping illicit liquor manufacturing and connected activities. The Mahatma took exception to the minister’s advice. He felt that no expense would be too much for enforcing prohibition. He advised the minister to try to understand and learn from the US, where at that time, a prohibition policy was in force.
In the light of the Mahatma’s advice, it would be interesting to look at the experience of the US. The 18th Amendment to the US Constitution, which was ratified on January 29, 1919, banned the manufacture, transportation and sale of intoxicating liquors. In October 1919, the US Congress passed the National Prohibition Act (also known as the Volstead Act), which provided guidelines for the federal enforcement of prohibition. Though there was an initial drop in arrests for drunkenness and a reported 30 per cent decline in alcohol consumption, those who wanted a drink “found evermore innovative ways to do it”. Gradually, support for prohibition waned, as bootlegging (illegal production and sale of liquor) and speakeasies (illegal drinking spots) thrived. There was an accompanying rise in gang warfare and other crimes. In early 1933, the Congress adopted a resolution proposing a 21st amendment to the Constitution, which would repeal the 18th. It was ratified by the end of that year, bringing the prohibition era in the US to a close.
So, we should perhaps heed Mahatma Gandhi’s advice and learn from the American experience!
Third, it is argued that there is evidence to show that excessive consumption is a factor of availability. A distinguished professor from a reputed institution in Thiruvananthapuram told ‘The Hindu’ (May 7, 2016), “The propensity to drink is high, when liquor is available nearby and therefore, the decision to shut down bars could be a game changer.” He went on to add, “Some say it will reflect in the voting pattern in the May 16 Assembly elections.”
Well, the then ruling party, which closed down the bars, got a drubbing in the elections. That evidently was not quite the game changer that the good professor had envisaged. The professor’s argument was borne out to some extent, since the increased availability of beer and wine promoted by the then Government resulted in a significant increase in the sale of wine (131 per cent) and that of beer (95 per cent) in the year 2015–16. Then, we also need to note that 355.95 lakh cases of Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) were sold in 2015–16 as against 316.7 lakh cases in the previous year. Curtailing availability of hard liquor does not seem to have made much of a difference.
Fourth, it is argued that free availability of liquor causes an increase in crime. It is only reasonable to assume that certain restrictions on availability of alcohol would help check misbehaviour, if not crime. However, going by available statistics, 1836 drug cases were registered in Kerala during the first six months of 2016 after the introduction of partial liquor ban, as against 974 cases registered in 2013. This would seem to suggest that liquor ban has led to an increase in drug abuse. Nevertheless, we need reliable data over a period to establish this argument. Let us acknowledge the fact that World Health Organisation (WHO) considers alcohol to be the fifth leading risk factor for death and disability in the world. The European Union (EU) has also recognised alcohol consumption as a major social problem causing health problems, crime and deaths.
All this points to the need for us to adopt a well-thought-out strategy addressing all the issues at hand, which are, principally, three in number. The first issue is excessive consumption with its implications for the health and welfare of families. The second issue is the need of the people, especially the working population, for relaxation. The third issue is the requirement to attract tourists, who come here not necessarily to drink, but certainly to relax.
There is also a fourth issue, the need for governments to raise revenue. However, this issue comes to the fore only once it is established that alcohol consumption on moderate levels is not injurious to the health of persons and families.
Surprisingly and interestingly, Pinarayi Vijayan’s stand on prohibition would have been endorsed by none other than the foremost authority on liquor in Kerala, former IAS officer K H (Kurumathoor Harijayanthan) Namboodiripad, who compiled the Kerala Excise Manual. (He also translated the ‘Dashadhyayin Vyakhyanam’ of Varahamihira’s ‘Horasastram’, the seminal work on astrology, into Malayalam.) Namboodiripad spoke to the ‘Sree’, a Sunday magazine of ‘Malayala Manorama’ (May 27, 2007) on ‘Books and Booze’. He was clear in his view that there was no point in banning liquor, in support of which he quoted the Eleventh Skandam of the ‘Bhagavatham’:
(Sexuality, meat-eating and drinking cannot be completely banned or stopped. These can only be controlled through marriage, yaga and yagna, in which surapanam plays an important role).
This advice comes from a man who presumably never drank a drop of liquor in his life.
The question now is what would be a sane policy to follow for the Government of a State that wants those who wish to drink to do so responsibly. There is certainly a crying need to ensure that people do not drink excessively. At the same time, we need to take into account the adverse impact that ban or partial ban can have on tourism and on the economy in general. Considering all these aspects, it would be advisable for our Government to look at ‘Systembolaget’, a system of State monopoly over liquor, which has been prevalent in Sweden since 1955, when it was introduced after experimenting with various means of controlling consumption.
Colloquially known as Systemet or Bolaget (the system or the company), it is a Government-owned chain of liquor stores. It is the only retail store allowed to sell alcoholic beverages that contain more than 3.5 per cent alcohol by volume. To buy alcoholic beverages at Systembolaget, one has to be of a certain age. Systembolaget is not allowed to sell liquor to drunk people or those reasonably suspected of buying liquor for someone who is below the legal age. All products are taxed on alcohol content, and not on price. Systembolaget is one of the largest buyers of wine and spirits from producers all over the world.
The company, which has over 500 outlets, makes advertisements focused on the side effects of drinking and the encouragement of drinking moderately. Many of the ads are focused on preventing teenagers from obtaining alcohol. The vision of the company is, “A society in which alcoholic drinks can be enjoyed with due regard for health considerations so that no one is harmed.” Its mandate is, “To sell alcohol, offering a high quality service and providing information about the risks associated with alcohol.” Its business concept is, “To sell alcoholic beverages responsibly while offering a first class standard of service and sharing our knowledge of alcohol and health.”
In their study of Systembolaget, ‘Establishing a Healthy Drinking Culture’, Karen M Ekstrom and Lena Hanssen state, “The idea to limit consumption – and thus alcohol-related problems – by an alcohol monopoly such as Systembolaget and its focus on customer satisfaction could, from an international perspective, be considered a smart solution to a global public health problem.”
Bevco, the Government of Kerala’s own alcohol monopoly should sit up and take note. Its outlets are far from consumer-friendly today. Bevco can perhaps play a major role in fostering a culture, where moderate drinking would become a legitimate leisure activity combined with other relaxations such as music, theatre, dining, sports etc, where everybody can share the joy of living in a civilised ambience. While this would be one major pillar of the State’s liquor policy, the other pillars would be counselling services meant for reaching out to those who need help and a police force, which would put the fear of the law into those who cannot hold their drinks.
*P K Hormis Tharakan is former Chief of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and former Director General of Police (DGP), Kerala. He is also Adviser to Centre for Public Policy Research.
Views expressed in this article are personal and do not reflect those of CPPR.