One change the Coronavirus pandemic has unleashed in India’s private and public lives that was unimaginable only a few weeks ago, is of the state conducting home deliveries of alcohol.
It is dictated by stampedes at many places across the country when the liquor vends re-opened after 40 days’ lockdown, burying physical distancing in the dust. They got even the Supreme Court to nudge state governments to consider online sales and home delivery.
This is a radical departure in a tradition-bound country with a diverse population that practices faiths many of which, per se, disapprove of alcohol consumption.
Add to this, the cultural mores. Although history is replete with evidence of soma, sura and shiraz and mythological narratives talk of ancient Indians drinking, there is no reference to it in Ramayan and Mahabharat, two of the mythology-backed TV serials currently being re-run to keep the Corona-hit locked-in people entertained and home.
Whether drink-at-doorstep is progress or if Indians have turned ‘modern’ is debatable. The age-old squeamishness about alcohol consumption has been given a go-bye for the greed to generate revenue, by even adding a hefty “Corona Cess”. Necessity has become the virtue for central and all state governments except Gujarat, Bihar and Nagaland and the Lakshadweep union territory. It’s supposedly temporary, but one can’t be too sure of the future.
Two very apt lines have gone viral on the social media: “When a drunken man falls, nobody lifts him. But when the economy falls, all the drinking men gather to lift it.”
Significantly, there is no objection from the politico-cultural czars who dictate what people should wear, eat and drink. They don’t seem to mind their governments profiting from selling liquor. Eschewing beef and bovine urine talk and dress diktats for now, they have shut their eyes to the ill-clad families of daily-wage workers, left hungry and unpaid by their contractors, walking back, shoe-less, from big cities to their villages hundreds of kilometer away.
This tragically contrasts with opening of the liquor vends, especially when the same Supreme Court says it “can’t stop them from walking.”
This modern-day Marie Antoinettes’ culture is omnipresent. With Gandhi and those who worked with the Mahatma long gone, the original ‘nashabandi’ adherents, now down-and-on-the-political- periphery, are also silent. They never took Prohibition seriously when they ruled and made money, conveniently ignoring Article 47 of India’s Constitution. Also a Directive Principle of State Policy, it prescribes: “….the State shall endeavor to bring about prohibition of the consumption except for medicinal purposes of intoxicating drinks and of drugs which are injurious to health”.
All are guilty of shedding principle for practical reasons. Truth be told, Prohibition does not win votes and drains the exchequer. The law, whenever and wherever applied, has been impossible to enforce given the porous international and inter-state borders. Past experiments that failed were by C. Rajagopalachari (old Madras State) and N T Ramarao (old Andhra Pradesh).
Nitish Kumar’s Bihar is the current example. Prohibition is non-debatable in Gujarat, although liquor flows in from nearby states. Erstwhile Bombay state developed ‘bevda’ (double-distilled hooch) culture till as Maharashtra, influenced by its powerful sugar lobby, it gradually went wet.
Alcohol has definitely ruined millions of families. Men resort to domestic violence, incur debt and take to crime. In segments of society where women, too, drink, damage is compounded, without giving women any social or economic advantage.
Besides some committed NGOs, women where organized in groups, perhaps, remain the sole Prohibition supporters. Liquor bans have often spared them from penury and domestic violence. Sadly, Coronavirus has weakened these womenfolk, seemingly ending the debate if Prohibition delivers medically, socially and/or morally.
The ground has been laid over long years by going easy on collective conscience. Late Jayalalithaa financed her ‘Amma’ welfare schemes for the poor from excise revenue. Things were not different earlier, and not just in Tamil Nadu. They gain momentum before each election when freebies are distributed to the electorate.
If alcohol quenches thirst or kills, it also sanitizes. Since sanitizer, direly needed to combat Caronavirus has alcoholic content, many in Karnataka consume it as a substitute to alcohol. Taking the cue as it were, some liquor manufacturers have used their expertise to make satinizers and donate them. Surely, they also serve who rinse their hands with sanitizer – before lifting the peg.
Money remains the mantra. Alcohol sale delivered over 15 percent of tax revenues for 21 states in 2018-19. Earnings range from Punjab (Rs 5,000 crores) to Tamil Nadu (Rs 30,000 crores). Going by the booze-boom, the 2020-21 fiscal should witness a whopping rise for all.
These official figures, however, conceal inter-state smuggling and hooch produced and sold through the unorganized sector, statistics for which are seldom available.
India consumed 2.4 litres of alcohol per capita in 2005, which increased to 4.3 litres in 2010 and scaled up to 5.7 litres in 2016, a doubling in 11 years, as per a WHO report. Hence, the estimate to reach about 6.5 billion liters by the end of this year may be upwardly revised.
“The big picture is that this is the right approach even if Covid were not wreaking havoc,” declares a Times of India editorial in support of home delivery. It seeks to draw a global picture of Covid-driven liquor policies adopted by different countries, confidently adding that “none have reported a conversion to teetotalerism.”
A “non-prohibition” U.S. has seen $2 billion more spent on alcohol in stores since the start of March than last year. Mexico has kept its citizens dry but also kept tequila production going and tequila exports have soared. Sri Lankans have taken to home brewing in the face of their government’s ban on booze.”
Historically, Prohibition is a failed notion the world over. The idea of restrictions on the use and trade of alcohol has punctuated known human history; the earliest can be traced to the Code of Hammurabi, the Babylonian law of 1754 BC Mesopotamia. In the early 20th century, protestants tried prohibition in North America, the Russians between 1914 and 1925, and the US between 1920 and 1933.
Having presented both sides of the picture within this space, as a social drinker, I must confess to tilting towards ending Prohibition, but with caveats and controls that should come from within. Drinking, after all, is a personal choice that should have family consent and of course, economic and medical ability.
But one thing is sure: Coronavirus compulsions are unlikely to end this to-drink-or-not-to-drink debate.