Wanted national action plan
By Dr S Saraswathi
(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi
The Supreme Court ordered a ban on all liquor shops on national as well as State highways across the country. The licences of existing shops will not be renewed after 31st March 2017. In effect, the apex court practically accused the Union Government for “not doing anything concrete”, and over that “speaking the language of vendors” which is the reason for it to step in.
The order issued on a batch of petitions was aimed at reducing road accidents. The court expressed deep concern over fatal road accidents exceeding 1.5 lakh in a year caused by drunken driving. This is reversal of its earlier verdict given in September on a plea seeking complete ban on alcohol in the country that courts could not venture into the policy domain of States.
The recent case was heard by a three-judge bench headed by the Chief Justice of India. It also ordered removal of all advertisements and sign boards on the highways indicating the route for nearby liquor shops. Recall that the Union government had on 1st December 2011 issued a circular to States and Union Territories to shift all liquor shops from highways. Needless to mention this has not been taken seriously for implementation by the Centre.
At the same time, the apex court has also reminded State governments to do their duty “to bring about prohibition of consumption except for medicinal purposes of intoxicating drinks and of drugs which are injurious to health” as prescribed under the Directive Principles of the Constitution. It mentioned Punjab State which sought exemption for liquor shops situated on highways in elevated space and came down heavily on the liquor lobby in the State and asked the Government “to do something for the general public”.
The verdict exposes conflicting interests involved in the consumption of liquor – the industry, business, revenue, public good and private pleasure. Any anti-liquor policy and legislation must be national to be effective. But, distribution of powers under the Constitution has placed “intoxicating liquors, that is to say, the production, manufacture, possession, transport, purchase and sale of intoxicating liquors” in the State List.
State policies and laws are required, but not enough to produce results. In olden days, when the old Madras Presidency followed prohibition, weekly journey of drink addicts to neighbouring Puducherry was known to be common. The model is revived today. The Supreme Court now is shocked to learn that there are 62 liquor shops along one km. stretch on the national highway in Mahe district in this UT for the “benefit” of Kerala addicts deprived of drink following imposition of prohibition of liquor in their State.
In recent months, there has grown a populist competition among various States to introduce ban on liquor. In Tamil Nadu, for instance, political parties – the DMK (which lifted prohibition in 1971), MDMK, VCK, PMK, and other local parties – promise to bring about prohibition of liquor as a priority. NGOs are also extra eager to support prohibition in various ways including organisation of protest marches. Ideas are invited and action plans are promoted in a competitive spirit. Essay competitions are organised to gather ideas. Organised and unorganised women’s groups take to picketing liquor shops located near schools and temples and have succeeded in many places in closing them.
In Kerala, a phased programme of wiping out liquor consumption was unleashed starting with restriction of bar licences to 5-star hotels. The Supreme Court also upheld the policy of Kerala Government, but was unhappy over allowing beer and wine. The UDF leadership chose the issue of “prohibition by stages” as its chief election plank in May 2016 while LDF canvassed for promoting “abstinence”.
Bihar launched its dry law in April this year banning both country-made and Indian-made Foreign Liquor with immediate effect. A noteworthy feature of its tough prohibition law is the provision for collective penalty for a whole village or town up to Rs. one lakh for violation of the law by a group. Leaving aside the politics behind prohibition, JD (U)’s rather firm stand and the Chief Minister’s staunch commitment to the policy is a rare instance of fulfilling a promise made in the election manifesto to bring about total ban on consumption and sale of liquor in the State. The law applies to liquor and not to toddy.
However, the Patna High Court, in September 2016 quashed the order on liquor ban on the basis that it created unreasonable restrictions on the choice of livelihood of a person protected under Article 21 under the Fundamental Rights. Still, the Chief Minister, relying on people’s support, came out with a new and more stringent law providing for more harsh punishment to keep Bihar dry. The law, termed “draconian” by Opposition parties, provides for capital punishment for those trading in illicit liquor and punishment for family members above 18 years in case of consumption of alcohol at home and of top management for consumption within the company premises. The Government is seeking public views on the issue, and is ready to address the objections and not to reverse the decision.
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar describes liquor trade as immoral and refuted the claim of loss of revenue due to prohibition. As regards the problem of loss of livelihood for those engaged in liquor manufacture and trade, his advice is to shift to alternative service – a suggestion not marketable among people satisfied with practising traditional occupations and following conventional pattern of life.
The Government of Maharashtra has also decided to shut down toddy shops. The Chief Minister of Delhi has declared that no new liquor shop would be sanctioned in the capital this year. On the other hand, Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh held that liquor is “linked with various traditions, customs” and could not be banned altogether though he agreed to ban opening of new shops.
Thus, there has been a sudden surge in the demand for liquor ban among political parties all over the country. It cannot certainly be attributed to the sudden dawn of enlightenment or moral resurgence. Whatever be the motive, the wave must be utilised.
History has shown that it is difficult to enforce prohibition. Any law will leave scope for differential treatment of offenders due to spot decisions by law enforcers. The common argument of governments that prohibition will encourage production of spurious liquor shops amounts to open admission of inefficiency and/or reluctance of law enforcing authorities to catch the culprits.
The moral side of the problem, dear to non-drinking public, is something to be felt and realised and cannot be taught. Curious arguments of individual freedom and rights, right to pursue livelihood of one’s choice cannot go on forever as restrictions themselves are necessary to uphold any rights and freedom in real life.
The social cost of chronic abuse of alcohol is calculated to be much bigger than the revenue raised. Diseases and infirmities, losses due to road accidents, decline in work output, neglect of families leading to serious problems of domestic violence, child labour, and school drop-out are the glaring social cost involved in alcoholism. The nation needs a wise National Liquor Policy to be followed by effective and uniform State laws. —INFA