We find that the op-ed pieces on prohibition in various English newspapers, including The Indian Express, are largely written with a distinct “regulationist” bias — unanimous in their advocacy for regulation rather than prohibition as the solution to the liquor problem. The authors argue that the problem should be tackled at the individual level through de-addiction and counseling and states should regulate alcohol rather than impose blanket bans. They promptly write away Nitish Kumar’s support for prohibition as a gimmick to woo the women vote bank without bothering to ask why women demand prohibition in the first place. Having worked on this issue for 15 years at the grassroots level in Maharashtra, we would make a straightforward assertion that women demand prohibition as a political solution because liquor has become a political issue.
States like Maharashtra dislike any interference in the assured, ever-increasing sale of liquor partly because of the revenue that it brings, and even more because of the close linkage between liquor and politics. Bigwig politicians in the state either own breweries or are closely linked to one. Licenses are handed out to party karyakartas, many of whom get tickets as well. There are no population norms or area norms to restrict the issue of licenses — tiny hamlets of populations less than 500 persons can land up with four liquor shops and bars. The bottomline — politicians whose political and/or business interests are served through increase in liquor sales would rather use their power to increase such sales rather than think about regulation.
In this situation, the very talk of self-care, counselling and de-addiction as alternatives to prohibition ends up depoliticising the issue and directly helps the liquor lobby’s agenda. Regulationists add to the cacophony that asks women and families to “handle” their drunken men and resolve their personal health issues rather than demand any kind of accountability regarding the over-supply of alcohol in their communities.
Regulationists fear that banning good legal liquor will drive people towards the obnoxious illegal hooch. However, as the hooch tragedy of Mumbai which killed more than a hundred people shows, hooch and licensed liquor thrive side by side. In fact, licensed liquor is sold illegally as much as hooch and kills just as many people. The legal/illegal binary is blurred as licensed liquor shops set up well-knit networks to smuggle liquor outside their premises in blatant contravention of the law. They do not adhere to timings or dry day restrictions; they regularly sell to under-age persons and use minors for smuggling activities. The excise department has neither the will nor the way to act effectively against erring license holders. Apart from other things like a severe lack of humanpower and resources, the excise department has been drilled over decades to increase revenue by meeting sales targets. Police have been ordered not to act without first bringing erring license holders to the notice of the excise department. It is an explicit policy of the Maharashtra government that license-holders should be treated leniently and let off with a (minor) fine under the legal euphemism called “compounding of offences”.
It would be some relief if local people, especially women, had a say in the closure of erring liquor shops. Except for the 27 blocks which fall under the PESA (tribal) area, the rest of Maharashtra comprising more than 300 rural blocks and urban areas have to put up with a thoroughly devious procedure in this regard. The impossibly complex process has rarely been used for urban areas — and never successfully. The messy process for closing liquor shops in rural areas goes roughly as follows: First, not less than 25 per cent of total women electorates in the gram sabha have to apply to the district collector to close the shop, against which the district collector seeks a preliminary report from the excise department. If the report is positive, the collector informs the excise department and block-level officials either to conduct a women’s gram sabha where women can show their preference through a show of hands or a secret ballot. The date for the gram sabha is announced 15 days in advance and women have to face violent opposition during this period. The license holder and his henchmen do everything in their power to prevent women from reaching the venue of the gram sabha. Even if the women succeed in getting the required numbers in the gram sabha/ballot and the district collector orders the closure of the shop, the farce of appeals starts almost immediately. The license-holder invariably obtains a a stay order from the excise commissioner or minister and the shop reopens almost as soon as it closes down. Even a failed appeal petition merely means that the shop in that particular village is closed and the license is used to open a shop in another village and the circle starts once more. The very law is structured to ensure that shops do not close, that smuggling is not checked and the supply of liquor is never regulated.
Therefore, if the politician-business-criminal triad can come together to protect their vested interests, why should the women not form a vote bank to break this nexus? Liquor is not a moral issue but a political one and therefore, more power to the women of Bihar who have shown the way, and hopefully, more politicians will take the cue from Nitish Kumar.