Hooch tragedies: Lack of uniformity in taxation, pricing leads to inter-state smuggling; India needs National Alcohol Policy

The toll in the most recent hooch tragedy has almost touched the 100-mark. From Haridwar, Saharanpur, Kushinagar, Roorkie to Meerut, fatalities were reported in places across Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh. On Sunday night, hours after reports confirmed the deaths from the consumption of spurious liquor, the Uttar Pradesh government announced that a five-member Special Investigation Team will investigate into the manner. The Uttar Pradesh Police conducted raids in areas like Gorakhpur, Chitrakoot, Maharajganj, Mathura, Ghaziabad and Hamirpur.

Meanwhile, Opposition parties kicked up a storm in Uttar Pradesh Assembly on Monday and demanded resignation of chief minister Yogi Adityanath. In response to the accusations, Adityanath slammed Samajwadi Party leaders who were found to be involved in illicit liquor trade in the state’s Azamgarh, Hardoi, Kanpur and Barabanki regions. The fact is death caused by spurious liquor is not fault of a state government and solution isn't political blame game.

Into its 73rd year of independence, India lacks a national alcohol policy.

Serious policy efforts in the direction only began in 2010, when The World Health Organisation (WHO) came up with its global strategy to reduce the harmful use of alcohol that was adopted by 193 United Nations member countries. This was when stakeholders from civil society came together to form what was called the Indian Alcohol Policy Alliance (IAPA), which collaborated with the National Institute for Social Defence and the Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment. The three bodies followed the guidelines laid down by WHO and designed a national strategy for reduction of alcohol abuse. What’s the status of its recommendations? ‘Disappointing’, said Johnson Edayaranmula, Director, Alcohol and Drug Information Centre. He was a part of that IAPA team and feels alcohol must be added in the concurrent list, where the constitution provides for a central law to override a state law.

"If tobacco and narcotics are a national subject, then why is alcohol still a state subject, especially when the UN Sustainable Goals 2030 recognise alcohol abuse as one of the four risk factors to public health?" he asked, adding that subsequent health budgets have mentioned smoking but given alcohol a glaring miss. In states like Delhi, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, liquor is a state monopoly over alcohol distribution. But, in Karnataka, Goa and Uttar Pradesh, this is not the case. This enables distributors with one single permit to import much more than the permitted load and thereby evade tax.

Since alcohol falls in the 7th schedule of the constitution, the state has the powers to decide. An example of this is the 2016 Supreme Court judgement banning liquor vends within 500 metres of national and state highways. In the wake of protests by those affected, particularly the hospitality industry, the Supreme Court diluted its stand by adding that the order does not prohibit licensed establishments within municipal areas. As a result, state governments began de-notifying national highways and declaring these roads as local, state roads. Yet another recommendation that the IAPA made was the need for uniform taxation, that can now be done by bringing it under GST and the need for tightening the price elasticity that can put an end to inter-state smuggling.

In states like Gujarat, Bihar, Nagaland and Lakshadweep, the sale of liquor is banned. In Kerala, the left-wing coalition eased the ban on liquor imposed by the previous government. In 2017, liquor was liberalised in the state. During the days of the ban, 730 liquor shops had shut down but all that effort soon went down the drain. In Manipur, former chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh had floated the option of lifting prohibition in the state assembly during his tenure but the ban still exists.

In a 2013 report released by the Public Health Foundation of India, the question of lack of coordination with various central departments is mentioned. While the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (MoSJE) looks after alcohol use prevention programs, developing networks and capacity building for alcohol prevention and control, and monitoring. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) runs de-addiction centres. Taxation and excise are the responsibility of the Ministry of Finance and the state Excise department. There is no systematic coordination between these departments. Hence, the lack of comprehensive national data on the production and sale of alcohol.

In 2004, Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment funded a study carried out under the guidance of Rajat Ray, former Head of the Department of Psychiatry and First Chief, National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre (NDDTC). In 2018, a new national study on alcohol abuse, funded by the same ministry, is in the final stages of compilation.

Professor Dr Atul Ambekar of the National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre at AIIMS is heading it. He told Firstpost that the shortage of legal and quality-controlled alcohol leads to proliferation of a black market, especially in areas where alcohol is permissible by cultural customs. In the case of hooch victims from Haridwar, the alcohol had allegedly been consumed as part of the 13th day mourning rituals.

Professor Ambekar added that the brewing and fermentation process in home-made liquor aren’t what cause damage. Instead, the distillation process at small units that operate illegally are the culprits. HK Sharma, senior social scientist at AIIMS, who has been researching and writing on the subject of illicit alcohol in India since three decades, said that India has a huge moonshine industry that turns chemicals into poisons. Small manufacturing hubs use methyl alcohol a potent adulterant often as ethanol substitution. “Since the chemical is readily used in industries, it is easy to get hold of it. To make the drink stronger, fatty acids, urea and ammonium chloride are also added,” he deconstructed adulteration that is poisonous and life-threatening.

The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry, in a 2015 report, noted that the illicit market for alcohol consumption has grown since 2002 and this huge increase has cost legal distillers 14,140 crore. “We can safely state that 25 to 35 percentage of the total liquor production in India is being done under these moonshine industries,” explained Sharma.

In 1994, the Congress-party government of Andhra Pradesh was forced to ban the sale of arrack, a country spirit that earned it lakhs in excise duty. This was the result of pressure from women in newly formed literacy circles in Dubagunta, a village in Nellore. In Delhi’s Narela, where CM Arvind Kejriwal’s convoy was attacked some days ago, one single woman has led a movement against illicit alcohol. The area is also home to the Sansi tribe from Rajasthan that is notorious for engaging in production of illicit alcohol. But, unlike the women from Andhra Pradesh, she hasn’t been successful.

Parveen, a 39-year-old mother of four girls, attempted to expose the Sansi dealers in Narela (West Delhi), she filed FIRs and wrote letters to the DCP and the Delhi Women’s Commission, regarding the illegal trade of alcohol in her area (all copies were shared with Firstpost). Videos of her being beaten up by the liquor mafia surfaced on social media in 2017, after which she was summoned for a hearing by the Delhi Women’s Commission. “Till date, no action has been taken,” she feels it is unfortunate that Delhi’s mixed land-use norms allow people to open production centres within their homes and business goes on unchecked.

Shaleen Mitra, an advisor in the Delhi government, cited the lack of coordination between agencies like the police and the excise department as one of the key reasons why Parveen lost her battle.

Had there been a strong bottom-up law in the centre, couldn’t it have kept authorities at even district and panchayat levels under strict check? Through surrogate advertising and minimum liability on authorities serving alcohol, a deadly market of poison is at work. Hooch deaths aren't a one-off incident caused by negligence of a certain government, it's a collective failure of conscience and method.

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Updated Date: Feb 12, 2019 17:42:07 IST

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