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Kicking the bottle: Why Gujarat's prohibition on alcohol doesn't work

Here is Gujarat conundrum with three elements in it. Prohibition is a matter of public faith. The official policy bars manufacture, storage, sale and consumption of liquor. Unlike other states which raise revenues from the booze industry, Gujarat has done well for itself without it. And Prohibition is not a success.

No wonder, obviously tongue-in-cheek, Saibal Dasgupta, a journalist friend based in China, with a long earlier Gujarat stint, wrote this on his Facebook wall: “Does Gujarat Model include (its) Prohibition policy?” Of course, Prohibition is not Narendra Modi’s brainchild; it was Gandhi’s advocacy.

Image used for representational purposes. AFP.

Image used for representational purposes. AFP.

It is not one part of the developed Gujarat that other states would want to welcome. It would deny them of the taxes that are raised, which almost invariably show an annual incremental growth. It would also deny a good part of the constituencies of their daily legal tipple which could mean votes lost.

Alcohol policy is in the domain of the states but importing it into the states would also mean ushering in a new underground industry – bootlegging – and a new source of income for the players in the establishment – enforcers, their political superintendents from it. Losses to the exchequer would mean gains to the private pockets.

Andhra Pradesh tried Prohibition between 1958 and 1969 and again from 1994 to 1997, but abandoned because of leakages – read corruption here – and flows from across its borders – read smuggling here – and the industry is so strong, retailers do not mind fixing their own sale prices for the booze.

Haryana’s flirtation with a dry policy lasted only two years from 1996 and was abandoned on grounds of loss of jobs in the liquor industry. Tamil Nadu’s affair with dry laws in place since 1952 lasted two decades. The later revenue gains by these states indicate the infatuation with liquor as a resource.

As per a The Hindu Businessline report some time ago, Tamil Nadu government found Rs 21,800 cr in its exchequer because it runs a state-owned monopoly liquor business. In Kerala, "22 percent of the total government revenue came from the bottle", the total being Rs 8,000 cr.

West Bengal’s revenue from this was Rs 2,600 cr. You name it, and a state is more likely to be dependent on the booze industry for a substantial chunk of its revenue. It quoted KK
George, chairman, Centre for Socio-Economic and Environmental Studies, Kochi, saying liquor revenues were rising everywhere.

Jose Sebastian, Gulati Institute of Finance and Taxation, Thiruvananthapuram saw alcohol revenue as counter-productive. "It makes them lethargic about finding other revenue sources. Remember: a big chunk of the revenue comes from the working class."

It does not automatically mean is better off because people don’t drink. They do, and illegally. Had Gujarat tapped this source, an estimate years ago said, would yield some Rs 4,000 cr as possible on the basis of the quantity of the illicitly consumed. Compare it to Maharashtra’s Rs 9,600 crores (this includes tobacco products).

That makes the level of failure in enforcing Prohibition in Gujarat apparent. Talking to me in 1984 about darubandhi campaigns he ran, the Gandhian Prabhudas Patwari, a former Tamil Nadu Governor, took comfort in one fact: those who drank thus did not make asses of themselves, stayed indoors, made safety possible in public spaces.

Bootleggers abound, and operate quietly, with Gujarat having a term for the guy who carries and delivers it to the doorstep: folder. The origin of the slang is not known. The stuff can be found in the unlikeliest of places like a grain store, a house where you needed a codded knock, a telephone number. But one had no choice of a brand or type: whiskey, brandy, rum.

I recall an out-of-town correspondent of The Statesman flying down to cover the 1985 riots. He walked up to a police picket when the city was under curfew, asked, paid for, and got his bottle from a constable. He said he was testing the system and gave it flying colours in the next day’s edition. The government was only momentarily embarrassed.

At one level, when one sought exemption using the sumptuary rule – the permit is just that – was shamed when seeking a tipple. One had to provide the dharudiyanu naam – alcoholic’s name as also the dharudiyanu baap nu naam – the alcoholic’s father’s name. For out of town visitors, the proof was a return ticket, preferably an airline.

Ahmedabad residents liked such travellers because their applications yielded beer, not an item favoured by the bootleggers. Ferrying beer meant volumes. A beer bottle was nowhere near a bottle of rum or whiskey either in the kick it provided or the appropriate margin to the volume of fluid. Gujarati’s, as mentioned earlier, are businessmen first and foremost.

As a newsman travelling to Ahmedabad often even after being relocated to Mumbai, I found beer to be a lubricant in my line of work. Four bottles at hand meant politicians were willing to visit to me for a chat and the need to commute to meet them was eliminated. That had such a pull! No wonder Narendra Modi wanted to ease access to liquor for participants of international conventions.

PS: Before Mumbai was dotted by malls, and one had to go to Crawford Market for buying good glassware, risk parking problems, a visit to a big store on SG Road got me what was
eluding me for long. A perfect set of six wine glasses. I did not know that wine was now
being illicitly brought in too.

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