The Jagan Mohan Reddy government wants to impose total prohibition in Andhra Pradesh by next year. The new bar licence policy announced by the government last week, which includes a major hike in bar licence fee and reduces the number of bars in the state by 40 per cent, is a notable step in that direction. The government has claimed that it intends to impose prohibition by making liquor scarce and raising the costs of consumption as a response to a demand at the grassroots in the face of rising alcoholism in rural areas. Experience in other states, however, suggests that the policy of prohibition will fail while causing immense social and economic hardship to people, including and especially the poor.
Making liquor scarce is no cure for addiction — it only drives liquor production and sales underground. The immediate impact of the move will be felt on the state’s finances. Addicts need clinical counselling and medical care. Prohibition is an intervention that will only upset the budgets of families and the state, while adding to the burden of the police and judiciary. Production of cheap, spurious liquor is bound to grow and meet the supply-demand deficit. The consequences of shifting from a regulated liquor economy to an unregulated, underground alcohol market are manifold and dangerous. Take the case of Bihar, where prohibition was enforced in 2016. Among other problems, it has generated a legal logjam with the state courts reportedly saddled with over 2 lakh prohibition-related cases. Police have seized over 52 lakh litres of alcohol and arrested 1.67 lakh people under the Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act. Over 40,000 bail pleas are pending in the Bihar High Court. States like Tamil Nadu and even Andhra Pradesh have experimented with total prohibition in the past only to withdraw the policy later. N T Rama Rao is said to have won an assembly election in the 1990s by championing prohibition but his son-in-law, Chandrababu Naidu, lifted it, citing revenue losses.
The Jagan government has been on a populist path ever since it won assembly elections in May. It began by cancelling tenders and projects citing corruption. Now, it has picked up the temperance argument to impose prohibition. Andhra Pradesh’s Chief Minister should stop contriving and chasing spectres, get down to governing.