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India’s Prohibition Hypocrisy

NEW DELHI – Last month, 18 people in the Gopalganj district of India’s Bihar state died after consuming illicit alcohol, highlighting – once again – the peculiar relationship between morality and tragedy in India. The victims were poisoned because this April, in a fit of moralism, Bihar adopted a draconian law prohibiting the sale, possession, and consumption of alcohol. It is far from the first such ban that has ended badly.

In a country where the national hero is the saintly Mahatma Gandhi, who considered alcohol an unmitigated evil, drinking has always carried a whiff of disrepute. India’s constitution, in its non-enforceable Directive Principles, urges Indians to work toward prohibition, and the government does not serve alcohol even at state banquets and official receptions. Four out of 29 Indian states (Bihar, Gujarat, Manipur, and Nagaland) and one union territory (Lakshadweep or the Laccadive Islands) are currently attempting to enforce total prohibition.

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But maintaining a sweeping prohibition policy has long proved difficult in India. In Manipur in 2002, the 1991 ban was lifted in five hill districts, where alcohol consumption is a centuries-old local tradition. Lakshadweep makes an exception for an uninhabited island, where a tourist resort is allowed to operate a bar. When I was a child, what was then Bombay excused anyone with a doctor’s note confirming alcoholism. (Well-heeled executives tripped over themselves to be labeled alcoholics.)

The state that best illustrates the appeal and the pitfalls of such moralism is Kerala, which announced in 2014 that it was implementing a partial ban on the sale of alcohol, with the goal of achieving total prohibition in ten years. It has been backsliding ever since.

A coastal state, Kerala has long been viewed as a tourist paradise – a reputation no doubt kept afloat on a sea of easily available libations. Before the ban, Kerala held a somewhat dubious distinction: India’s highest per capita consumption of spirits. But in India, where prohibition is popular among many segments of the electorate, politicians find it particularly difficult to resist the self-righteous urge to improve their fellow citizens.

So Kerala’s government introduced the ban. And, at first, many approved. The influential Christian churches applauded the move, as did the Christian-affiliated political parties. Kerala’s Muslim leadership, including the then-ruling coalition’s ally, the Indian Union Muslim League, was equally vocal in its support. Working-class women, tired of watching their laborer husbands blow their monthly wages on booze, also welcomed the decision, as did traditionalists, Gandhians, and other moralists, of which India has an abundance.

No public figure of any consequence in Kerala stood up to oppose the decision. Any politician who might have been inclined to do so knew that they would be instantly tarred as a votary of evil alcohol, an agent of the “liquor mafia,” a bar-loving enemy of good, wholesome Gandhian values.

But there were good reasons to oppose the ban – reasons that had nothing to do with religion, morality, or alcoholism. Excise duties on liquor account for 22% of the state revenues that sustain generous welfare programs in Kerala, which boasts the best social development indicators in India. Another 26% of state revenues come from tourism, which would surely also take a hit.

Furthermore, much of Kerala’s economic viability depends on dynamic knowledge and services sectors. Attracting talent and investment from abroad would become much more difficult if prohibition hampered the state’s quality of life. (IT professionals in Bangalore, in the neighboring state Karnataka, flock to that city’s bars and pubs after long hours at work.)

Kerala’s leaders should have known that their state could not afford to do without widely available, heavily taxed liquor. But they began to implement the policy anyway.

Almost immediately, 20,000 bar workers and distillery employees lost their jobs, in a state that already struggles with high unemployment. Tourism operators were stung by cancelations, as would-be visitors decided to visit Sri Lanka or Goa instead; 50% of existing convention bookings were canceled. And IT companies contemplating moving to clean, green, tech-friendly Kerala expressed concern about the prohibition policy.

It was not long before Kerala’s government decided that prohibition would apply only to hard alcohol, and closed bars could reopen as wine and beer parlors. But that was not enough to save the government in June’s state election, which produced a new communist administration that, advocating education about the evils of alcohol instead of a ban, has promised to review the prohibition policy.

So Kerala is no longer hurtling toward disaster in the name of saving people from themselves. But it never should have gone as far as it did, given experience with prohibition in other states, where falling revenues and rising crime (including smuggling, tax evasion, and illicit liquor production) forced its revocation. Four states – Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Mizoram, and Tamil Nadu – have repealed prohibition policies.

To be sure, not everyone loses out from a prohibition policy. When Kerala first announced its plans, neighboring Tamil Nadu’s alcoholic beverages corporation, TASMAC, promptly declared its intention to open a string of new outlets along the states’ border, to cater to the demands of Keralite consumers. In other words, excise duties from Kerala would now fill Tamil Nadu’s coffers.

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Banning alcohol in India has been economically devastating. Yet politicians continue to use the promise of prohibition to win votes. When elections were called in Tamil Nadu early this year, its chief minister declared herself in favor of prohibition. After the election was won, however, all such talk discreetly subsided.

My late father liked to say: “India is not only the world’s largest democracy; we are also the world’s largest hypocrisy.” I suppose we can drink to that.