We should welcome the Supreme Court’s ban on liquor shops on national and state highways. Driving in India is a risky act. Road accidents — annual deaths amount to nearly 1,50,000 — are among the top 10 causes for death and disease in India, according to Global Burden of Disease, 2015. Drunk driving is the most common cause for automobile accidents. The SC order will save thousands of lives and save insurance costs.
A few questions, however, will be raised. Why ban only liquor shops and exempt bars that serve wine, whisky, brandy, etc, which contain 15 to 50 per cent alcohol? Any alcohol, when drunk in sufficient quantity, blurs judgement and dulls reflexes. Hence, all opportunities for drinking must be removed from the highways.
The liquor lobby is already trying to neutralise the SC order. In several places, moves are afoot to transfer the management of highways to municipal corporations to bypass the apex court ban which applies only to national and state highways. This must be plugged. If alcohol is harmful on the roads, is it safe elsewhere? Is alcohol an innocent drink? WHO attributes 200 types of diseases to alcohol with an estimated annual 3.3 million deaths globally, and a loss of a total of 140 million life-years. Alcohol kills more people than HIV.
But why fuss about people occasionally indulging in a peg or two? According to the WHO Statistical Report 2015, the annual per adult consumption of absolute alcohol in India is four litres — about 400-500 drinks per year. As only 20 per cent of adults in India drink, their per head annual consumption is 2,500 to 3,000 drinks. Think about the impact on those who consume alcohol, and those around them.
What about the individual’s freedom of choice to drink? Yes, but what makes this free choice? The brain. Alcohol influences the brain and compromises its ability to make a reasoned choice. After the first drink, it is alcohol which is dictating choice, not the brain. In the case of alcohol, the idea of free choice is a myth. Alcohol takes away our ability and, thereby our freedom, to make a choice. Abstaining from alcohol protects our freedom of choice.
Moreover, there is third party damage. Those around the abusers — wives, children, neighbours, those walking or driving on the streets, employers, colleagues, even recipients of the drunk’s service — are at grievous risk. Imagine what a drunk doctor or police officer could do to his clients! What about the fate of the poor sleeping on footpaths when celebrities exercise their freedom of drinking?
The issue is not simply the freedom of choice of drinkers; it is also the freedom of life, safety and dignity, of family income and the productivity of other people. Hence, the issue is in the realm of social policy. Regarding prohibition, the obligation of the state is enshrined in the constitution of India.
But can prohibition be implemented? We have an interesting case of triplets — India, Pakistan and Bangladesh — which earlier were a single nation. Like twin brothers in a Manmohan Desai film, they were separated and have followed different paths on prohibition. In Pakistan and Bangladesh, the government policy and religion are anti-alcohol.
According to WHO 2015 statistics, the annual per adult consumption of absolute alcohol (legal plus illicit) in India is 4,000 ml while it is 100 ml in Pakistan and 200 ml in Bangladesh. In the predominantly Buddhist Myanmar and Bhutan, it is 700 ml. It is less than 1,000 ml in 26 countries where governments and culture have taken an anti-alcohol view. Clearly, alcohol consumption can be controlled.
Culture does influence peoples’ behaviour, especially when the government also holds a similar view. Most religions in India — Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism — prohibit drinking. The net cultural influence in India is, therefore, anti-alcohol. According to WHO, even today, 80 per cent of the adults in India don’t drink.
If government policy and efforts complement this cultural factor, lessening the present alcohol consumption by 75 per cent, and reducing it to less than 1,000 ml per capita, may not be impossible. Even countries like France and Italy, known for their drinking culture, have reduced alcohol consumption by a third. Russia aims to reduce it by 55 per cent.
Alcohol consumption probably will never become zero. The right question to ask is not whether prohibition was successful or a failure, but if it reduced alcohol consumption. Moreover, as the Supreme Court judgement says, it is the government’s constitutional duty to make the policy work. The question about prohibition is not if, but how.