Why I have a beef with Nitish Kumar’s liquor ban in Bihar

It was hypocritical of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar to invoke the Constitution to counter student leader Kanhaiya Kumar on the prohibition debate. On his recent trip to Bihar, Kanhaiya said he supported the state government’s ban on liquor, but also added that total prohibition violated the freedom of choice.

In response, Nitish Kumar reminded Kanhaiya, rather acerbically, that Article 47 of the Directive Principles of State Policy instructs the state to “bring about prohibition of the consumption…of intoxicating drinks and of drugs which are injurious to health”.

Quite clearly, Nitish is dissimulating. The Directive Principles are not binding on the state. It is for the state to decide whether, and when, it is appropriate to implement any of the Directive Principles.

Such a decision consequently has to be democratic. It cannot quash the rights of others. Kanhaiya said this as much, “One’s principled position in view of our Constitution rights would be that those wishing to drink should be allowed to drink.”

Given that the Directive Principles are so sacrosanct for Nitish, one wonders what his position is on other provisions similar to Article 47. For instance, does he favour a Uniform Civil Code (Article 44)? It is unlikely he will come out to bat for it, fearing he might alienate Muslims.

Then again, has the Nitish government taken steps to secure participation of workers in managing industries (Article 43A), or minimize the inequalities of income (Article 38 [1])?

You could just go on and on.

Kanhaiya’s interrogation of prohibition from the perspective of the citizen’s right to choose echoes the arguments of those who opposed the adoption of Art 47 in the Constituent Assembly. One of them was BH Khardekar, an independent member from Kolhapur, Maharashtra.

Not only did Khardekar think prohibition will deny the state the much-needed revenue to finance educational and health infrastructure, he quoted political theorist Harold Laski to point out that “prohibition goes against the very grain of personal liberty”.

Khardekar said acts of suppression such as prohibition will lead to stunted growth in young men of free India, which should strive to develop their personality to the fullest. He, however, clarified, “It does not mean that we should encourage them to drink but they will find their mistakes.”

It is through mistakes we discover ourselves – and learn to shoulder responsibilities arising from liberty. By contrast, prohibition enforces a regime of denial with consequences.

As Khardekar said, “Then Sir, consider - I am not going to be frivolous here - but consider the shock given to social life - club life will come to an end - and I may tell you just compare the two things - some friends having discussion may be in the evening or night quite seriously over a glass of butter-milk and as against that an innocent but intellectual discussion over a glass of wine or even beer.”

He didn’t hold back the punches even as members reeled under shock, evident in their subsequent rebuttals to his speech. Khardekar said, “If you were to compare the life in a city like Bombay on dry days and wet days, Sir, on dry days you will find life really dry and dull.”

Acutely aware he could be accused of siding with the rich, Khardekar referred to mill workers who worked “very hard all day” and “like to have a glass or two of toddy” in the evening. Toddy was but fermented neera, he argued, adding, “If along with the vitamins he gets a little mirth or joy, why should you deprive him of that? Sir, I would want you to consider the solace and the little comfort that he gets.”

Khardekar analysed what different sets of people did in leisure time. He said people like Ambedkar drew solace from reading books. There are others “who like to read novels and enjoy them. There are those who like to play the piano and there are some who would like to have a glass of wine or beer.”

Khardekar went on to mock Constituent Assembly members who he said were ignorant of the difference between drinkers and drunkards. He said there had been no surveys done to establish the percentage of Indians who drink. He thought it couldn’t be more than 10 per cent, of which only one per cent fitted the descriptor of drunkard.

So he asked, though not in precisely these words, whether it was appropriate to deny revenue to the state from liquor sales, besides depriving people of their right to choose, just to save one per cent of drunkards in India!

Of another order was the intervention of Jaipal Singh, who captained the Indian hockey team which won the gold medal in the 1928 Olympics. He opposed prohibition on the ground that alcohol was weaved into the cultural-religious and economic life of Adivasis. “In West Bengal, for instance, it would be impossible for paddy to be transplanted if the Santhal does not get his rice beer,” Singh said.

His other line of argument was that “excess in everything is wrong. If you eat too much rice, it is bad for you… But, if you take anything in its right quantity, it is good for you.”

Women dance and sing in state capital after partial ban on sale of liquor was enforced in the state. Getty Images

Women dance and sing in state capital after partial ban on sale of liquor was enforced in the state. Getty Images

Jaipal’s simple but profound observation is so true of Nitish – it is he who created the condition in which tipplers in Bihar took to excessive drinking. To undo his original mistake he has now criminalized what for most occasional and moderate tipplers is (or was) simply a leisure activity.

Nitish’s mistake dates to 2007, when the state’s excise laws were changed to increase manifold the number of licences that were to be issued for opening liquor shops as also the fees for them. In addition, the minimum quota that liquor vendors were to purchase from the state was also jacked up dramatically.

Thereafter, liquor vends mushroomed – from 3,436 in 2006-2007 to over 6000 in 2016, the rate of growth slowing in later years because of the emergence of social protests, particularly by women, against liquor in 2014.

The growth in alcohol sales was largely sustained by penetrating rural Bihar, where liquor shops tripled to 2360 in 2014 from just 779 in 2007. There are 8463 villages in Bihar. This means there was a liquor shop for every 3.5 villages in 2014, in contrast to one servicing every 11 villages in 2007.

Increased accessibility to liquor led villagers to shift from toddy, called taadi in Bihari parlance, to bottled liquor. Taadi was locally produced and consumed; its supply wasn’t inexhaustible. The fine balance between supply and demand was now upset. Liquor was now available round-the-clock.

Those who didn’t drink taadi because of the social stigma attached to it hit the bottle. It was also because the migrant Bihari labour in metros and states like Punjab became acquainted with drinking – it was now no longer a taboo. In fact, it was now the symbol of modernity. Easy availability of liquor nurtured the new-age culture.

The liberalisation of liquor licence was aimed at generating finances to bankroll development projects. From Rs 319 crore of taxes collected through liquor sales in 2005-2006, the amount shot up to Rs 3,650 crore in 2014-2015. It was this tenfold increase which perhaps enabled Nitish to initiate schemes such as the much-lauded free bicycles to girl schoolchildren.

The rampant commercialization of drinking, no doubt, had devastating implications. Money was diverted from necessities to buying alcohol. Domestic violence increased. Women erupted in protest. Nitish has mollified them through prohibition.

As Nitish hypocritically trumpets the ban on liquor as his achievement, he has joined the growing breed of Indian leaders who take delight in banning beef, books, cinema, skirts, tank-tops, et al. For what unites all prohibitionists is their fear of certain lifestyles corrupting society.

This isn’t to say that alcoholism hasn’t been the bane of families and individuals. But to cite this to justify prohibition is akin to banning sex to check HIV from spreading. We don’t ban sex, do we? Instead, we advertise the virtue of ‘safe sex.’

As Jaipal Singh reminded us decades ago, excess of anything is bad. Moderation is the path for people to tread, a path from which Nitish strayed in 2007 through his liquor policy. Through prohibition he now seeks to atone – as also consolidate his women votebank – at the expense of those whom he tacitly encouraged to guzzle liquor.

No doubt, Nitish will claim prohibition was the wish of majority of people. Another term for it is majoritarianism, in the process denying tipplers – in minority, obviously – their little joys and comforts and squashing their right to choose, about which Khardekar had so poignantly lamented decades ago.

Updated Date: May 05, 2016 08:38 AM

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