Over the moonshine

Illegally distilled alcohol has now taken more than 100 lives in and around Ahmedabad,and the numbers...

Published:July 11, 2009 3:03 am

Illegally distilled alcohol has now taken more than 100 lives in and around Ahmedabad,and the numbers could spike up sharply. Many of those undergoing treatment are said to be serious,with more cases still being reported. Of particular concern is a confession by a bootlegger arrested in the case that 1300 litres of illicit liquor had been supplied in Ahmedabad. The Gujarat government has announced free treatment for all patients — and it is to be hoped that the authorities will signal enough goodwill that they will not be harassed,so that more affected persons will come forward for treatment. A retired judge of the Gujarat high court has been asked to inquire into the case,but its dimensions already speak of a solution. What the hooch tragedy of 2009 reveals is not just prohibition’s failure but also just how it has perverted the administration’s responsibility to regulate items consumed by the people.

Gujarat has had a ban on the consumption of alcohol since the state was created. In this period there has been enough anecdotal evidence that the ban has not curbed alcohol consumption. Instead,it has created space for a so-called liquor mafia to operate. The other side of the thousands of crores in revenue the state loses each year is a clear vested interest bootleggers and certain elements in the administration have in keeping the ban. In 1989,after 132 people died in Vadodara after consuming hooch,the government appointed the A.A. Dave inquiry commission. Its conclusion is revealing: “People have not only continued to consume liquor,but their number has also increased. Anyway,if the prohibition policy is scrapped,it will not only help reduce the (prohibition-related) cases of corruption,but also the funds the government spends on its implementation could be utilised on the welfare of the poor labour class. Hence,it is requested that the government review the prohibition policy.”

The case against prohibition has more dimensions than the ineffectiveness of the ban and the illegitimate arrangements that have sprung up. The moral case for prohibition just does not hold in a modern democracy. And Gujarat’s efforts to nibble away at prohibition show that. A visitor to Gujarat can easily obtain a liquor licence,and recently the state government considered allowing its consumption by state residents in SEZs. However,the fact of a paternalistic ban impedes the authorities from gaining revenue from its sale and from regulating the alcohol on sale and the circumstances in which it is consumed. By driving the activity underground,Gujarat fails its people.

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