The Supreme Court of India recently upheld Kerala Government’s decision to restrict alcohol consumption in the state. In doing so, the court invoked the Directive Principles in the Constitution and claimed that “strict state regulation is imperative” to discourage regular and excessive consumption of alcohol.
- Kerala government came out with this policy with the noble objective of protecting public health and nutrition.
- The closure of hundreds of bars across the State despite substantial loss in state’s revenue deserves praise.
However, according to few, this is a misguided policy. Why?
Arguments, against this decision:
- Historical evidence shows that prohibition does not encourage or enable people to quit drinking. Rather, prohibition tends to drive the trade underground and creates a market for spurious liquor.
- This policy is just a populist decision impelled by factional politics within the ruling party.
- The policy may only help to shift the drinking space from bar to home or other private spaces.
- This policy may lead to increase in the sale of consumption of beer and wine, which is a gateway to the consumption of hard liquor.
Arguments, in support of this policy:
The following arguments indicate that such ban was the need of the hour-
- The Constitution places a responsibility on all state governments to “at least contain, if not curtail, consumption of alcohol” (Article 47).
- Strict state regulation is imperative to discourage regular and excessive consumption of alcohol.
- Alcohol denudes family resources and reserves and leaves women and children as its most vulnerable victims. A social stigma at least as far as the family unit is concerned is still attached to the consumption of alcohol.
- Vulnerable persons, either because of age or proclivity towards intoxication or as a feature of peer pressure, more often than not, succumb to this temptation.
- According to the Alcohol and Drug Information Centre of Thiruvananthapuram, 44% of Kerala’s road accidents, 19% of stays in government hospitals and 80% divorces are linked to alcohol abuse.
- The drinking age is dangerously coming down. This clearly indicates alcohol has become a social sickness and we have to treat it.
- Alcoholism does also critically impacts the household budgets of the poor and may lead to domestic violence.
The liquor policy, upheld by the apex court, allows service of liquor at bars in five star hotels only. Under the policy, the sale and consumption of liquor at the bars in hotels below five star is prohibited.
Why five-star hotels are excluded?
- The exemption was sought by the government on the grounds that it was necessary to protect the tourism industry.
- The apex court has also held that there was no hostile discrimination by the state government in making an exception for only five star hotels, as it is not the state which has imposed the classification of star gradation of hotels. This is done by the Ministry of Tourism, which in turn is further guided by the criteria established in the hospitality trade.
- The court also notes that there is a “reasonable nexus” between the policy exempting five-star hotels and the State’s objective to rescue public health.
- Five-star hotels account for just .08% of alcohol consumption in the State and the prices/tariff of alcohol in five-star hotels is usually prohibitively high, which acts as a deterrent to individuals going in for binge or even casual drinking.
- Also, the patrons of five-star hotels are of a mature age and do not visit these hotels with the sole purpose of consuming alcohol.
Arguments, against this exemption:
- The apex court’s decision to exclude five-star hotels from the ambit of prohibition seems unreasonable and arbitrary. Such preferential treatment discriminates against a large segment of the tourism industry and ignores their right to a level playing field.
- If the consumption of liquor is a social problem, it should be so for all. Halfway measures can complicate issues.
Neither government nor the court appears to have studied the experience of states like Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, which have tried to implement prohibition in the past — unsuccessfully so.
- Prohibition has been in place ever since statehood in 1960, first under Bombay Prohibition Act, 1949, and now under the Gujarat Prohibition Act, 2011, following several amendments. The latest version, which followed 150 deaths caused by hooch in Ahmedabad in 2009, includes the death penalty for those found guilty of making and selling spurious liquor.
- The law allows for temporary and long-term drinking permits to foreigners, NRIs and tourists, with outlets and purchase limits specified. A resident can get a permit only on health grounds. At special economic zones, the government allows consumption against three-year permits.
- Every city, however, has bootleggers and an illegal interstate business thrives, estimated at around Rs 1,500 crore annually.
- Total prohibition for 18 years, relaxed by a new law in July. Rules allowing regulated sale and consumption of alcohol being framed, liquor shops and bars may take a few more months to open.
- Government figures show high seizures of alcohol and several arrests of bootleggers and drunkards between 1995 and the end of the first quarter this year. Opponents of prohibition say these show prohibition has been a “failure” and has done little to reduce the availability of alcohol.
- Experimented with prohibition from 1994 to 1997. Following a movement by women who vandalised liquor shops and beat up people drinking in public, N T Rama Rao promised prohibition, won elections from that plank and kept the promise after becoming CM in January 1995. The experiment failed.
- Though consumption by the poor came down drastically, there were many leaks. It also led to corruption in police, administration and politics and liquor was available although in very limited quantities.
- Prohibition in the state was imposed in 1996. In the very first year, estimates say, revenues dropped Rs 1,200 crore, ruling party leaders started voicing protests, and women complained about their husbands deserting their homes for places where they could drink.
- More than a lakh cases were registered, thousands of vehicles impounded, lakhs of bottles recovered and destroyed, but illicit brewing and smuggling continued, and drugs made their way into the state. The government withdrew prohibition after 19 months.
- The Nagaland Total Liquor Prohibition Act, 1989, followed a movement launched by Naga Mothers’ Association (NMA) and church bodies. It exempts prohibition for traditional liquor forms ‘Zu’ and ‘Rohi’. The Army and paramilitary forces too are exempted under an amendment of 1995. From Rs 600 lakh in 1988-89, liquor-related revenue has fallen to about Rs 250 lakh a year.
- However, liquor is clandestinely available all over the state, with reports of seizure of liquor coming in regularly. In 2013, the then CM Neiphiu Rio admitted in the assembly that prohibition has been a failure.
While total prohibition may be a laudable objective and one of the Directive Principles of State Policy, it is doubtful whether confining drinking to homes and private spaces by itself will bring down consumption. In a non-permissive society, it may only result in converting drinking into a covert activity, a phenomenon requiring policing and also bringing corruption in its wake. The verdict places a heavy burden on the State to rehabilitate those left unemployed by the closure of hundreds of bars, as well as to make its policy succeed. It also needs to ensure that the sweeping discretion conferred on it to differentiate between classes of licensees is not misused for any extraneous considerations.