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Alcohol is wrongly treated as just a moral and taxation issue, rather than a public health concern, finds Amitava Sanyal.

india Updated: May 11, 2008, 00:51 IST
Amitava Sanyal
Amitava Sanyal
Hindustan Times

The basic bias of independent India’s policy on alcohol was decided on November 24, 1948. At the Constituent Assembly meeting on that day, some members quoted Gandhi and the Manusmriti to push for total prohibition, while some others suggested that the Directive Principle urging states to enact prohibition be made stricter. At this point, BH Khardekar, an independent member from Kolhapur, rose to address the Assembly for the first time. Calling the Bapu-quoting members “lispingbabes” who were going by the letter rather than the tolerant spirit of the Mahatma, Khardekar said, “In a free India, the development of personality to its fullest extent is our aim, and by frustrations, prohibition, inhibitions, suppressions we are going to have a stunted growth in [our] young men. It does not mean that we should encourage them to drink, but they will find their mistakes and, ultimately, liberty — I don’t mean license — would be of considerable use.” Jaipal Singh Munda of Bihar went along with the Khardekar’s thought, saying drinks such as rice beer were a matter of ‘religious right’ for most of the 30-odd million ‘tribal’ citizens of India. The pleas went unheeded and prohibition stayed on as a Directive Principle.

Sixty years on, we still have Bapu-quoting politicians who want to prohibit and inhibit. The Union health ministry has just started the process of drafting a model alcohol policy in consultation with the Indian Alcohol Policy Alliance (IAPA). Minister Anbumani Ramadoss wants to propose at the WHO’s World Health Assembly later this month that October 2 be marked as the world no-alcohol day. The PMK, the party founded by the minister’s father, has been supporting prohibition loudly.

Wisdom from all over the world, theoretical and empirical, urges otherwise. In the Mahatma’s own state Gujarat, not only is the prohibition law a standing joke, but it has also given a new stream of income to the old smuggling industry of Daman.

GL Meena, who served as assistant excise commissioner there in the late 1990s, says, “It had become a cottage industry by the time I went. Entire households were involved in the trade. They used to uncork sealed, branded bottles and pour in cheap liquor that passed off as whisky. Some used to transport the fake labels and packs in their children’s schoolbags.” Meena, who was later felicitated by the administration for his efforts at fighting the menace, adds: “Big smugglers such as Laloo Jogi, Bhana Khalpa and Shukarnarayan Bakhia were involved. They would get Maruti vans’ pistons altered to increase the pickup, and we had to later chase them around in Daman and in Gujarat using some of their cars we had impounded. There was hardly any other way to catch them.” As borne out by experience in other states that have toyed with prohibition, the effort and money spent on such cases add to the revenue losses.

Experts agree that one of the principal problems is that alcohol has never been treated in this country as a public health issue. The only legislations directly addressing it are the state Excise Acts, which follow the law admittedly framed by the colonial administration to make money. The states are today reaping the benefits: a substantial fifth of their total revenues come from alcohol taxes (more than a third in Punjab). A model excise policy framed a couple of years back by the ministry of food processing industries lies unheeded. Right up in the draft is a discussion on the ethical dilemma of a state trying to implement its constitutional duty of restricting the sale of alcohol on the one hand, and reaping a huge tax benefit from it on the other.

Dr Vivek Benegal, associate professor of psychiatry at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences Deaddiction Centre, says, “We seem to think that only the 4Ps — the poor, the privileged, the perverted and the primitive — have alcohol in this country. Only when we acknowledge it as a public health problem — common, not rare —will we have looked at it holistically. The prohibition-centric approach has done more harm than good.” Dr Benegal’s studies have shown that the heavy, volume-based taxation enforced in India encourage spirits consumption over milder beers.

Dr Arulrhaj, chairman of IAPA and former president of the Indian Medical Association, agrees that prohibition will not work. He says, “Our draft policy has a three-pronged approach — reduce availability by removing ‘happy hours’ at bars, banning sales along all national highways, and closing alcohol shops at 8 pm; and adopt a uniform minimum drinking age of 21; and increase taxation.” Large-dataset studies by Ajay Mahal, assistant professor of health economics at the Harvard School of Public Health, show that though the most effective minimum age is 21, stricter enforcement at a lower age — say, 18 — is likely to yield better public health dividends.

Curiously, when our politicians quote the Father of the Nation as having said that he favoured total prohibition, they forget the rest of his quote. The Mahatma mentioned at the same time that he would shore up the resultant revenue shortfall by slashing defence expenditure. Let’s see our politicians gulping that down.

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