Let’s handle our liquor
The Indian State’s response to the drinking of alcohol has tended to be predominantly fiscal. After having flirted with — and sporadically imposed — prohibition, states have settled on prohibitive taxes as a tool to discourage drinking.india Updated: Jul 10, 2009 23:06 IST
The Indian State’s response to the drinking of alcohol has tended to be predominantly fiscal. After having flirted with — and sporadically imposed — prohibition, states have settled on prohibitive taxes as a tool to discourage drinking. Generally speaking, this strategy has worked: Indians, at 0.82 litres per head, drank less alcohol than tipplers in 149 countries in 2003, according to the World Health Organisation. Add in the 1.7 litres of country liquor quaffed and that too does not put us among the top 100 nations. Those of us who drink pay a tax of up to 150 per cent for the pleasure. States, which get to tax the production of alcohol and narcotics, will have collected Rs 39,463 crore in excise duties from them in 2008-09, an astounding 12 per cent of their tax receipts. Revenue has been a persuasive argument against an outright ban on the sale of alcohol.
Where stronger socio-religious arguments prevail — in Gandhi’s Gujarat and Jammu and Kashmir — 107 corpses in Ahmedabad will testify that prohibition doesn’t deliver either. The governments in these states are making their citizens, particularly those who can’t afford black market rates, more vulnerable to lethal brews. The theory of unintended consequences applies to prohibitive taxation too: hooch deaths are a sickeningly regular fixture. Access control — by bans or by pricing booze out of the market — is no answer. The government has, on intense lobbying from the local liquor industry, been resisting international pressure to lower taxes. Commitments to the World Trade Organisation don’t permit India to hold out for much longer.
The consumption of liquor in India has risen steadily from 0.3 litres per head in 1961 to 0.82 litres in 2003. Society has to factor in the rising trend line. Heightened awareness about the biological, social and economic effects of drinking must accompany easier access to a cheaper and better-inspected supply of alcohol. The State’s capacity to raise awareness is limited and it needs to co-opt a wider societal response. Our political establishment has on occasion seen a dividend from abstinence. This needs to evolve into a more holistic understanding of the close links alcoholism has to poverty. Civil society initiatives have shown dramatic results in select pockets, these must be allowed to grow into national scale. It’s time India learnt to handle its liquor.