Friday, April 15, 2016

Toppling the tippler – Bihar government’s new ‘dry state’ policy

Bihar government’s apparently sudden decision to make the state ‘dry’ certainly needs a serious inspection from both angles – philosophical and practical.
Whether one likes it or not, consuming alcoholic beverages has been a part of human history for at least since 10,000 BC. For celebrating or mourning, for appeasing Gods or self, for being social or anti-social, from tribal culture to ultra-modern urban culture, the least common denominator seems to be alcohol.
The urge to deny oneself the earthly pleasure of alcohol consumption is also very old, records dating back to 2070 BC, oftentimes embedded in religious rituals or monarchial whims. Abstaining from something always comes with its inherent halo. So any person from any religion who is ‘fasting’ (except when for unglamorous reasons such as checking fasting blood sugar) generally has her/his nose up in the air.
But, on a larger scale, on the scale of the society to be precise, how does banning something work out? In principle, it is a violation of personal freedom. If alcohol consumption is as unhealthy as consuming potassium cyanide, its sale should be stopped. But if it is considered unhealthy from some carefully selected angles, banning it won’t stand the test of free personal choice.
The arguments put forth by people supporting a ban on alcohol create a special, ‘more equal than others’ class, going against the grain of democratic principle of one human one vote. A similar logic is advanced while advocating the concept of censorship. If a majority of the populace, through voting process, demands a ban on alcohol or refined sugar or Himesh Reshamiya, implementing that is straightforward.
From the practical angle, nowhere in the world has such ban worked out. The great American fiasco of 1920 – 1933 is often quoted. But if you look at the international scenario today, it is irrationally funny. Practically every country that bans alcohol has to carve out exceptions, to cater to different tastes and cultures. And in India, prohibition is a state subject, which itself is illogical. In a nation where state borders are not rigidly fenced, having different policies for banning substances that can be carried from one state to another with utmost ease, doesn’t make any sense. As is, even in the states where alcohol is not banned, we already have a hilarious practice of ‘dry day’ which is never questioned. All it does is create an alternate business of providing liquor on such designated ‘dry’ days, at a premium. A couple of decades ago, Café Leopold was well known for serving ‘cold drinks’ in stainless steel glasses on ‘dry days’. Even then it was in the same place, opposite Colaba police station. Every city and town has its own watering holes, which operate at a different rate structure on ‘dry’ days.
Making an entire state dry just increases the volume of the business, offering economy of scale. It invariably invites the underworld to wholeheartedly participate in the activity. The only loser is the government, losing on the excise.
Gujrat is a ‘dry’ state. And you just have to travel to any city or town of that state to understand that ‘dry’ is a kite flying in the air, with no ground connection. In fact, the parallel supply chain of alcohol has got so well established, that it is oftentimes surmised that the liquor lobby pushes the government to keep the state dry.
So, what is Nitish planning to do? Bans were imposed (and rescinded) in Andhra Pradesh (united), Tamil Nadu, Haryana, among other states. Bihar didn’t figure in that list so far, so is Nitish simply aiming to cover that backlog?
By the way, when the legislators of all parties passed the ban bill and ‘resolved that they won’t drink and would discourage others from doing so’, both the Yadav scions were absent in the house. Conspicuous by absence or conscientious hence absent?

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