Liquor: It’s the economy stupid!(Cleofato Almeida Coutinho)

By Cleofato A Coutinho
13 May 2020 20:53 IST

As thousands thronged at the liquor outlets after five weeks of shutdown, the Supreme Court has asked the states to consider home delivery of liquor.  No doubt physical distancing got defeated as they jostled with each other after deprivation. Realizing that liquor would get sold at whatever cost, some states in India have imposed additional Corona taxes. The states of Delhi and Andhra Pradesh governments have impose a whopping 70 and 75 % taxes respectively. In fact the Andhra Pradesh CM claimed the imposition of taxes in the direction of prohibition of intoxicating liquors. The issue of Alcoholism and prohibition is back on the table. Some may have believed that after five weeks of shutdown, the demand for liquor would recede. In Goa it was urrack season and the jungle juice was not in short supply!

The alcohol usage is as old as civilization. It alters our senses and can give a sense of relaxation, peace and is considered divine. Consumption of Alcohol has been part of pagan culture. Ancient Egyptian, ancient Chinese and Mesopotamian cultures offered wines to gods. The Jews necessarily use wine in various religious ceremonies. The biblical narrative records both the positive and negative aspects. Christian views   on alcohol are varied. According   to Wikipedia, … both the  bible and  Christian values taught that alcohol is a gift from god that makes life more joyous but that over-indulgence leading to  drunkenness is sinful  or at least a vice.Rig Veda states somras for the gods and surra for the commoners, though there is a view that Somras has multiple meanings, however the core essence ofsomras is something that produces peace and a relaxed mind.

There can be no second opinion over the malaise of alcoholism (excess consumption) that has remained with us for thousands of years. Alcoholism has played havoc with family and social lives.Issues of public health and excessive drinking leading to disruption of families and societies have been on the agenda for centuries.  As the present nation-state got fashioned with personal liberty as a core constitutional value, prohibition over consumption of liquor was seen as a progressive move and the state was called upon to ban manufacture, storage, sale and consumption of liquor. United States of America was probably the first to bring in prohibition as the temperance movement swept the country. Some states of US had limited prohibition laws since 1838. In 1920 the 18th amendment to the US constitution brought a prohibition regime which lasted till 1932 when President Franklin Roosevelt defeated President Herbert Hoover who considered prohibition as a ‘great social and economic experiment, noble in motive and far reaching in purpose’.

In US prohibition regime,consumption of intoxicating liquors did not go away. History tell us that night clubs and cabarets are legacies of prohibition. The prohibition decade only saw bootlegging, smugglingand crime syndicates.A noble experiment brought by the world’s most prosperous democracy wedded to personal liberty; to reduce crime, social problem and to reduce expenditure on prison administration actually turned to be a remedy worse than the disease.The US federal government in its hunt for revenue realized that there is no better way than tax on liquor. In fact in 1934, 9% of the federal revenue  came from  liquor. In 1932 as Franklin Roosevelt campaigned for his presidency, US faced the great depression and the call to do away with the noble experiment gelled well with the electorate.  It is this very revenue issue which made the states open liquor shops after five weeks of shutdown in India, despite a public outcry. An article in Financial Express says thatonly IMFLindustry contributes Rupees one lakh crores. For states in India, otherwise dependant on the centre for finances and the Covid lockdown having pauperized them, the revenue from liquor was certainly a big source.

Harold J. Laski wrote…”We cannot suppress all modes of conduct in which excess does harm. In most cases, we have to leave the individual free to judge at what point excess is a fact……When a particular statute is regarded as foolish and obnoxious by aconsiderable body of persons, they will rejoice breaking it. Illegal conduct becomes a matter of even pride.” Laski was spot on

Since the US experiment, prohibition has not succeeded anywhere. Here in India, in the home state of Mahatma Gandhi who advocated complete prohibition has a thriving illicit liquor industry. Neighboring Daman has a per capita consumption of 56 litres per annum, when the national average is 4.3 litters. It is estimated that Gujarat looses8000 crores annually. Maharashtra still follows the archaic law of ‘permit rooms’ States of Haryana, UP and Kerala tried their luck at prohibition laws but gave up. Bihar brought in complete prohibition in 2016. The police administration and Courts are clogged with prohibition cases. The bootlegging industry providesspurious liquor, normally consumed by the poor and the labour class. There are deaths due to consumption of such liquor and due to withdrawal symptoms. There is spurt of liquor sales in bordering states. Manipur brought in prohibition in 2002 for non-tribal areas but has now withdrawn in some districts. Manipur is now called the wettest dry state. Wherever there is prohibition, the rich and the elite have access to alcoholic beverages while the poor get spurious drinks and methanol. We cannot forget that the world’s most powerful democracy could not sustain an iron law in the early twentieth century. Nitish Kumar is now advised to lift the prohibition law to help revive the economy.

The constituent assembly which framed our constitution also debated the matter over a directive principle. Jaspal Singh Munda, a tribal member opposed the draft resolution on the ground that it interferes with the religious rights of adivasis for whom rice beer was essential for religious ceremonies.He said it was not possible for Santhal tribals to transplant paddy without rice- beer. Babasaheb Ambedkar immediately assured that prohibition laws would not apply in tribal areas under sixth schedule. B. H. Khardekar, the Kholapur MP said …” sir, on dry days you will find life really dry and dull….” He was referring to Bombay dry days. He went on … “there is difference between drinkers and drunkards and the latter comprise only one percent of the ten percent….even Gods indulged in Surra. Khardekar was more worried about the revenue at a time when India was in conflict with Hyderabad and J&K. Poverty elevation and education required finances. That was his bigger concern, thoughhe took offence to the tinkering of personal liberty. The proposal sailed through as it was a unenforceable pious obligation in the   chapter of directive principles.

A recent Supreme Court Orderon banning sale of liquor from pubs, barsand hotels within half kilometer of the highways to reduce road accidents was modified at the instance of the states and the centre within a brief period of a month. It is estimated that the order causedloss of rupees fifty thousands crores in tax revenue and loss of ten thousands to twenty thousands crores to private industry besides loss of livelihood to the workers. The Kolhapur MP who raised the issue of revenue in the constituent assembly was not alive to see his point vindicated. Alcohol contribution to the state kitty cannot be under estimated. It is the economy that rules us

Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author's own.

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Cleofato A Coutinho

Cleofato Almeida Coutinho is a senior lawyer and one of the constitutional expert in Goa. A member of Law Commission of Goa, he also teaches at Kare College of Law in Madgao.

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Drink sensibly, drink responsibly: that should be our motto as far as alcohol is concerned. Sensibly buy liquor made by reputed firms, add water or soda to dilute it... and so on. Responsibly dont overdrink and make a nuisance of yourself to your family and others.

How many in Goa die due to Naosagor and other additives? I have seen migrant workers drinking Methylated Spirit to quench their thirst with a fraction of the cost of good liquor manufactured by reputed firms.

- Xanno Xapai, Mapusa | 14 th May 2020 11:25


Good health of Citizens is d real need of d hour. So ban d liquor consumption.

- RSNayak, Chaudi, Canacona | 13 th May 2020 16:10


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