Call it spiritual awakening or the most exhilarating route to nation building. A few days ago, Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee ‘liberated’ the citizens of her state from the tyranny of dry days, slashing them from 12 a year – an oppressive one day a month – to a less revolting 4.5.
However, before raising a toast to the chief minister, let’s take a hard look at the compelling reality, both prosaic and frightening.
But there is more liberating information. While earlier you could enjoy your drink round the clock only within private confines, the government has now thrown open the doors of bars and pubs on more days of the year. In fact, there will be no dry days at all clubs and bars at three-star hotels and above. The four-and-a-half days of dry spell will be applicable to off shops, bars and pubs only.
Naturally, we are just a step away from the age of pure bliss when the doors of a bar, like those of a police station or a hospital, will never be closed in Bengal.
Desperation, the Mother of Innovation
And before puritans can cry foul, here are the numbers — distressing and justifying.
At the end of the last fiscal, West Bengal was groaning under a debt burden of Rs 3,050 billion. This means each citizen of this country has to pay about Rs 2,350 to square it off.
The fallout is that the poor chief minister has to fork out an immense amount – well over Rs 300 billion every year – to repay debt, and the amount is only growing, leaving precious little for development work. Faced with this crushing challenge, bureaucrats feel Mamata Banerjee has very few avenues to explore to lift her spirits.
Over the past few years, her finance minister had put up a valiant effort to earn money, but then there is only a limit to which he can squeeze the lemon. A desperate finance minister now wants to collect around 10% of the state’s own tax revenue from alcohol only and hence, he has held the doors of bars and clubs ajar.
Government officials argue that the step will also dampen the spirits of the bootleggers who regularly make a fast buck by selling alcohol on dry days.
There is another handicap that requires Bengal to encourage volume sales of alcohol. Trade analysts say premium liquor attracts higher excise rates, but Bengal records significantly less sales in this category than Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru, which means, in order to earn the same revenue, Bengal needs to sell more bottles than these states do.
However, there is no reason to think that the state government has an exclusive bias towards alcohol. Three years ago, it chose tobacco to raise funds for the relief of Saradha chit fund victims and the CM urged people to “smoke a bit more”. Her target: to raise Rs 150 crore through a 10% cess on the sales tax for cigarettes.
A Touch of Romanticism
If you thought this laissez faire policy of alcoholism will trigger a social backlash, you are wrong.
Mamata Banerjee has an advantage – she has the backing of religious tradition. Alcohol is one of the necessary ingredients of worshipping the goddess who symbolises power (shakti) and destruction. A few sects such as the tantriks have been offering alcohol to the goddess directly for centuries. In fact, an American beer company had even planned to name a beer after goddess Kali in 2012.
There’s more. Nothing in Bengal works effectively without endorsement or active participation of Bengali intellectuals, and fortunately, the CM can turn to this crucial
section for help in her hour of need. The state never had any shortage of writers, poets, film directors, painters, musicians, and in a few cases, respectable politicians, who were famous worshippers of alcohol – and many of them have attained nearly cult status the links of which with alcohol are not tenuous.
In fact, very few regions can boast of watering holes like Khalasitola, Baarduari, Olypub romanticised as they have been in this state. Poets such as Michael Madhusudan Dutt (1824-1873), Sunil Gangopadhyay (1934-2012), Shakti Chattopadhayay (1933-1995), writers such as Samaresh Bose (1924-1988), filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak (1925-1976), artists like Ramkinkar Baij (1906-1980) have spawned folklore in Bengal courtesy their drinking spirits, providing an intellectual sanction to swat any backlash from the purists in society. While Ghatak lived as much for the bottle as for the celluloid, Baij was even more valiant – he is said to have sold paintings and sculptures for a bottle.
Modern Bengali intellectual’s love for the bottle began in the early days of Bengal Renaissance during Derozio’s Young Bengal Society (in the late 1820s and through the next decade), when his maverick students hit the bottle and beef raising a storm in the orthodox sections, but inaugurating a chapter that has since then become a part of the Bengali intellectual’s DNA.
Uncork The Optimism
And now turn to the market.
For those who remember the basics of the rules of investing can also hope that the growing drinking culture can encourage at least some IMFL manufacturers to set up factories here to take advantage of the “proximity to market” factor.
Their optimism need not end here. One chief minister’s alcohol is another chief minister’s poison and manufacturers will soon realise that thanks to the prohibition in Nitish Kumar’s Bihar, many from the neighbouring state, too, are flocking to Mamata’s Bengal to enjoy their drink, thereby pushing the numbers even higher. And, which marketer in India will refute the logic of numbers.
Over the past few years, the CM has been wooing investments, with her voice mellowing from one of wonder as to why investments are shying away to one of entreating investors. If IMFL manufacturers now put a few of their eggs in Didi’s basket, it will count as a collateral benefit of the government policy.
The critics, especially the opposition, may go on lambasting the CM, but they should remember that of Bengal’s 91 million population, 80 million get rice at Rs 2 per kg. State subsidy on food grain has increased almost 12 times from Rs 516.32 crore in 2010-2011 to Rs 6,000 crore in 2016. The government claims more than 10 million minority students were provided scholarship at a cost of Rs 1,921 crore; 20,380 clubs and NGOs were provided grants; 3.3 million girl students were enrolled under the Kanyasree scheme for Rs 1,900 crore; four million boys and girls received bicycles under the Yuvasree scheme and one lakh job seekers got a monthly financial assistance of Rs 1,500 and so on.
You will only be helping in this exercise if you drink heartily – a sort of PSR (personal social responsibility) you may say. Cheers.