The Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy-led government’s decision to introduce prohibition in Andhra Pradesh has once again exposed an ostrich-like head-in-the-sand attitude of our opinion shapers. By and large, they maintain a conspiracy of silence on the nation-wide menace of rising liquor consumption. But as soon as someone proposes prohibition, they all wake up and attack it as an unworkable and populist measure, without quite acknowledging the problem or ever bothering to advocate an alternative solution.
After CM Reddy announced his plans for prohibition in a phased manner, editorials in the English media were quick to dismiss this as a populist move, a policy that was designed to fail, if not a moralist intrusion into matters of personal liberty. Anti-liquor activists and movements continue with their simplistic belief that complete prohibition is a fool-proof solution to the problem. Between them, the moralising prohibitionists and libertarian anti-prohibitionists have prevented an informed and constructive debate on an issue that deserves urgent national attention.
The liquor problem
The alcohol menace keeps coming up on the media radar and is pushed back every time. In recent years, the governments of Bihar, Kerala and Haryana have introduced different forms of liquor control measures. Bihar opted for complete prohibition with mixed results. Kerala preferred a more sensible policy of graded reduction in liquor consumption. The new government in Haryana has announced a half-hearted policy of closure of liquor shops when demanded by 10 per cent gram sabha members. Maharashtra has witnessed strong anti-liquor movements leading to prohibition in three districts. Anti-liquor movements are strong in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.
I understood the significance of this issue in my padayatra of about 200 villages in the Rewari district of Haryana in July 2018. Without an exception, women in every single village listed increasing liquor consumption as the number one problem. They were desperate for any solution. Panchayats are no good, they said, as they get a commission in liquor sale (yes, there is a formal payment per bottle). They wanted, and tried, breaking down or burning of liquor vends, but to no avail. One woman took me aside and proposed poisoning of liquor to get rid of this menace once and for all!
Metropolitan intellectuals and policymakers have no idea of the nature of this problem. They continue to think of drinking through the prism of their own elite social practice. They don’t realise that a peg or two in an upper-class drawing room is a very different thing from a-quarter-a-day for a family that earns barely Rs 300 daily. They think that any plea for liquor control is moralising. True, often Gandhian and religious prohibitionists do make drinking into a moral issue, which it is not. In our country, alcohol is a growing health hazard, economic problem and a social menace. Sadly, the denial by our opinion makers fits perfectly into the vested interest of the liquor lobby and their nexus with politicians to ensure that this menace grows undetected and unresponded to.
Burden on poor more
This year, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment published a major report, ‘Magnitude of Substance Use in India’,
based on a massive sample survey across India. Add to these findings the WHO’s latest data on alcohol use in India from its Global Burden of Disease Study and Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health to understand the nature and extent of this problem.
First, the extent of liquor consumption is higher than we imagine: about 33 per cent of adult males (but less than 2 per cent of adult women) consume liquor. The proportion of male drinkers is above 50 per cent in states like Chhattisgarh, Tripura, Punjab, Arunachal Pradesh, Goa and Uttar Pradesh. About 25 lakh children in age group 10-17 also drink. Second, drinking in India means ‘hard drinks’ or spirits (which comprises 92 per cent of total alcohol consumption, compared to 44 per cent global average) over wine or beer. This increases health hazards. Third, the amount of alcohol consumed by every drinker is 18.3 litre per year on an average, much higher than the global average. That works out to about 50 millilitres of pure alcohol, or five pegs, every day. The proportion of drinkers who engage in heavy drinking is 55 per cent in India, again higher than the world average. Fourth, nearly one-third of drinkers, a total of 5.7 crore people, are either dependent on or harmed by alcohol use. They need help, but only 3 per cent of them ever get medical or psychological help needed. Finally, there is a direct and measurable impact on health. At least 2.6 lakh deaths every year can be directly attributed to liver disease, or cancer or accidents caused by drinking.
Besides health, drinking has serious socio-economic consequences, especially for the poor. An average rural family spends about 2.5 per cent of its income on intoxicants, which may be one-eighth of its disposable income once the basic necessities are paid for. An addict could be spending anything between one-fifth to one-half of the total family income on his own drinking. In social terms, the brunt of drinking is borne by women. Wife and child beating, social violence, sexual abuse, family discord and break-up, and child neglect are some of the most obvious results of drinking. No wonder, most women hate drinking. By now it is an established fact that for every litre of liquor, the poor suffer more in terms of health and social consequences than the affluent.
A national plan
Given the seriousness of the problem, it is nothing short of a scandal that liquor control policy does not figure on India’s national agenda. It is not hard to imagine what such a policy might be like. Total prohibition is unlikely to figure there because it has proven counter-productive far too often. While it does bring drinking seriously down, it tends to encourage smuggling, liquor mafia and spurious liquor.
What we need is a national plan for gradual reduction and control of alcohol use. This would involve, first of all, reduction in the dependence of state governments on liquor revenues. It would allow the state governments to stop aggressively promoting liquor. Second, the existing rules and laws regulating the sale and retail of liquor, the location of shops, opening timings and surrogate advertising must be enforced. Three, liquor license within a village or urban residential area should not be granted if 10 per cent of local community objects to it. Four, innovative social campaigns, such as Muktipath in Gadchiroli district in Maharashtra, should be supported to wean people, especially the youth, from the culture of drinking. Finally, a certain percentage, say about one-fifth of the government revenue earned from liquor sale, must be spent on alcohol and drug reduction and rehabilitation programmes. Can feminist intellectuals and women’s movement take a lead in developing a national consensus on this agenda?
The author is the national president of Swaraj India. Views are personal.