Stuck in traffic and seemingly with nothing better to do, 32-year-old Aizawl cab driver Vanlal Hriatpuia opens the glovebox and takes out his liquor permit, idly considering whether to have a drink — or several — that evening.
Mizoram has had “controlled prohibition” since 2014, and both local people and outsiders need a permit to buy alcohol. According to government records, there are 49 authorised retail liquor vendors in the state. There is the black market, of course, and the options here are many — including a shop otherwise selling cosmetics in a major shopping complex in the city.
“The holder of this permit is authorised to purchase six bottles (750 ml or its equivalent) of Indian Made Foreign Liquor and 10 bottles each of Beer and Wine in one month for his/her personal bona fide consumption,” says the official drinking licence.
In 2014, the Congress government of Chief Minister Lal Thanhawla went against the wishes of powerful NGOs and the Church to lift the existing blanket ban on drinking — replacing the Mizoram Liquor (Total Prohibition) Act, 1995 with the Mizoram Liquor (Prohibition and Control) Act, 2014.
“Church bodies came to me in the nineties and asked me to introduce prohibition. I did. For many years, it was there. But it was a total failure. A lot of spurious liquor was manufactured. So, we relaxed the total prohibition in the state to controlled prohibition in 2014,” Lal Thanhawla, who was chief minister earlier between 1989 and 1998, told The Indian Express in an interview last week.
The decision to relax the ban has become an issue in the November 28 Assembly election — with the opposition Mizo National Front (MNF) underlining problems that easy access to alcohol causes, and promising to bring back total prohibition if voted to power.
MNF chief Zoramthanga, who succeeded Lal Thanhawla in 1998 and ruled until 2008, told The Indian Express: “We will implement total prohibition. The Congress ended so many years of prohibition in the state, going against NGOs and the Church, which has led to alcohol-related illnesses and deaths in society.”
The Congress argues that lifting total prohibition has boosted revenues and cut crime. “The finance minister during his 2018-19 Budget speech mentioned that the government is expecting Rs 51.50 crore as tax revenue from ML(PC) Act during the financial year 2017-18,” Lalhruaitluanga Bawitlung, a secretary of the communication department of the state Congress unit, told The Indian Express. According to Mizoram police data, the rate of crimes is lower in the 2015-17 period than in the 2012-14 period, Bawitlung claimed.
A study group set up by the government to analyse the socio-economic impact of the ML(PC) Act has, however, submitted a different assessment. The report, which made its way to the local press in July, noted both the gains from lifting total prohibition (revenues of Rs 23.52 crore from warehouses and vendors, and Rs 12.45 crore from VAT), as well as costs such as rising alcohol-related health and social problems, and drink-driving accidents.
The bottomline, the study found, was that for every Re 1 of revenue earned from alcohol, an estimated Rs 2.85 was spent in costs. It weighed the pros and cons of all three options before the government: Total Prohibition, Controlled Prohibition, and Free Sale of alcohol, and recommended that total prohibition could be considered as long as stringent measures were taken to arrest collateral damage such as bootlegging, and the government was willing to give up on alcohol revenues.
On the question of revenue losses due to total prohibition, MNF vice president and the party’s campaign chairman R Tlanghmingthanga said: “When prohibition was there, even then we managed, right? And moreover, no amount of benefits from revenue can justify the death of even a single person because of drinking.”
Vanlalruata, president of the Central Young Mizo Association, the largest non-governmental organisation of the Mizo people, said that the chief minister had assured civil society groups at a meeting recently that the report of the study group was being considered, and the government was open to going back to full prohibition if it was indeed established that controlled prohibition had not delivered the desired results.
Speaking to The Indian Express, however, the chief minister insisted that “If we win (the Assembly elections), this (controlled prohibition) will continue.” State Congress spokesperson Lallianchhunga took a more conciliatory line. “During the period of total ban on liquor, many youths died after consuming spurious and bad quality liquor. We partially lifted the ban and made good quality alcohol available in a regulated manner to those who want to drink. But we are open to going back to total prohibition if we see that partial prohibition is not working,” he said.
But what about the people who like their drink and would like to be free to do so?
Cab driver Hriatpuia is clear that he does not approve of the state playing nanny. “More than laws, what matters is self-control. If you drink too much, of course you will die. But if you drink within limits, it is fine.”