Out of Sight is not Out of Mind

By Ashwin Tombat
01 April 2017 12:48 IST

The Supreme Court's decision to ban 'liquor vends' from national and state highways is very, very unlikely to reduce the incidence of drunken driving. Has 'Total Prohibition' over decades reduced the actual availability of alcohol in Gujarat?

All that the 15 December 2016 order banning liquor vends up to 500 metres from national and state highways (this was, on Friday, reduced to 220 metres in towns with a population of less than 20,000) will accomplish is wholesale redefinition of the term 'liquor vends' by state governments, and large-scale denotification of 'state highways'.

The state governments have little choice in the matter. Attorney General of India Mukul Rohatgi (who had earlier opined that the ban did not apply to restaurants and bars) told the apex court on Friday that because of the ban, the budget of every state will have "gone for a six". He is right. Lakhs of people will be out of work and states will lose thousands of crores of rupees in tax revenue as a result of this ban.

And will it have any real effect? Unlikely.

The liquor industry, somewhat like the healthcare industry, is more or less immune to disincentives like price increases or bans. In Economics, it is said to have 'inelastic demand'; no matter how high the price, the overall sale of liquor rarely goes down. People may shift to cheaper stuff, but they will drink anyway.

Kerala is the state in India with the highest rate of taxes on liquor. As a result, liquor is the highest priced in Kerala. However, not so strangely, per capita consumption of liquor is also the highest in Kerala.

Bans rarely work. Usually, they only create a higher-priced black market. But even if this ban actually worked, it would seem obvious to most of us that a half kilometre detour would not deter a hardened drinker from getting his favourite peg, or two or three.

But what would quickly deter the hardened drinker from driving is a police party on the road equipped with a breathalyser — a gadget into which a suspected drunk driver is asked to breathe, and which indicates if (s)he has drunk more than the legal limit for driving.

The Mumbai Police introduced surprise checks using breathalysers a number of years ago. Any driver who the breathalysers indicated was over the legal limit had to go to a hospital for an alcohol test and then spend the rest of the night in a police lock up, before getting bail in the morning.

That brought instant results. People stopped driving their own cars when they were out drinking, taking taxis instead and later, Ola and Uber cabs. It also gave rise to new businesses like 'Party Hard Drivers' (PhD). Call their number and, for a fee, they provide a 'safe and reliable' chauffeur to drive you home after the party.

The numbers tell the story. Despite increased surveillance, drunken driving cases dropped to 567 on 31 December 2016, compared to 705 on 31 December 2015 in Mumbai city. In Thane, they dropped to 597 from 650 the previous New Year's. In Navi Mumbai, they came down from 500 in 2015 to 309 in 2016.

Instead of this ban, the Supreme Court could have mandated an additional tax on liquor to fund a special police force equipped with breathalysers that patrolled national and state highways looking for drunk drivers. Make drunk drivers spend a night in the lock up and ensure they have to face criminal prosecution for their misdeeds. I can practically guarantee that would be greatly more effective at curbing drunken driving.  

Blogger's Profile

Ashwin Tombat

Ashwin Tombat has been the Editor of Gomantak Times and Herald. Worked as an Associate Editor of national magazine Gentleman in Mumbai, before shifting to Goa. Loves sailing, also participates in Marathons. Has worked as an activist in students's union and trade unions in Maharashtra. Also an artist of Street Theatre during student days.

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