The Dilemma Of A Dry State


The dry state policy — a never ending debate, an issue so sensitive that discussion is altogether avoided and opinions often muted. A law accepted on paper but not in head or heart; so easily ignored, so blatantly violated that its relevance has to be questioned.

Gujarat is one of the five states declared “dry” by the government. It has a law in force that prohibits the manufacture, sale and consumption of alcohol within the state boundaries. The Bombay Prohibition Act was the law that enforced this ban in the year 1949, shortly after the demise of the “Father of the Nation”, Mahatma Gandhi. The fact that it came into force during this period of national sorrow, and is so intricately associated with the Mahatma is the reason why it continues to be such a sensitive issue.

So here’s the truth; prohibition has done nothing more than drive liquor underground. As a result, bootlegging is rampant and illegal liquor dens flourish. The Gujarat police seize liquor worth a hundred crore rupees every year. But believe it or not, this is only a fraction of what seeps in. The bootleggers have embraced innovations with gusto and are not easy to nab. The shabbily dressed men who once concealed bottles wrapped in newspapers have made way for well groomed men rolling in SUVs, making a huge business and definitely a huge amount of money thanks to the liquor transit.

What needs to be understood however is that a number of questions have been raised about this law following the Hooch tragedy in the year 2009, which killed 126 people from the consumption of spurious liquor. The reason: A large proportion of people who cannot afford the expensive variety of alcohol turn to illegal and unscrupulous brewers for the much cheaper hooch, a locally made white whiskey.

While some describe the law as archaic and say that it should be done away with, arguing that it is robbing many of a basic freedom of choice, several social activists and Gandhians remain staunch votaries of the law. They argue that due to the ban the state has made great strides in economic and social development as people work hard and party less. However, this argument falls flat when the statistics on illegal consumption of alcohol are laid open for all.

When Narendra Modi relaxed the prohibition norms a few years ago in special economic zones to attract investment, it drew howls of protest. But is this a genuine agreement with the law or an act that only holds based on its sentimental value?

The government has time and again referred to this as a “psycho-sociological problem” and civil society appears only too confused about the correct stand to take. Politicians often come across as lacking the courage to even debate the prohibition for fear of being cornered.

The tragedy of Gujarat is that the politicians in need of funds for the elections ultimately turn to the prosperous bootleggers, thus extending a handle.

Prohibition has also forced a nexus between the police and the bootleggers leading to a rise of gangsters and mafias. The dry state policy has without a doubt brewed a policy of corruption with the police now wanting to be posted in “lucrative” areas. The police are more than willing to auction for these spots and the government sucks up the money from these transfers. The involvement of the police and several other powerful officials has to be Gujarat’s worst kept secret.

The ban on consumption of liquor has led to a whole new series of crimes. The paradox of abundance of liquor in the face of restriction has failed to wake up the government to the obvious reality. Or maybe they have tried hard not to wake up to it.

This law has undoubtedly hampered the state, as it cannot claim a single penny as revenue; revenue that can be used for the betterment of the state and its facilities. However, Gujarat has a parallel income of thirty thousand crore rupees that comes from the illegal trade of liquor. However, the establishment, owing to the law, does not have a right over any of it and loses a large amount. The huge sum of black money generated through this illegal practice cannot be invested in business and continues to circulate in a not so legal cycle.

Allowing liquor may not change the state of affairs overnight, but it may encourage a certain transparency, put an end to the vicious cycle of corruption and reduce the crime rate in Gujarat. The debate on the relevance of a dry status as an obligation to the Mahatma, even when the basic principles of truth, peace and social justice have been long forgotten must ensue.

How much longer can we revel in this false ideological hangover?

Pavitra Parekh

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