Dry Manipur still Wet and 'High'
- Are we losing out on liquor prohibition ?

Ngangom Junior Luwang *

The latest report by the National Family Health Survey-5 (NFHS-5), 2019-21 on liquor is distressing in as much as the otherwise dry Manipur is found still high and infamously the fourth most "drunk" State (Andaman & Nicobar Island being a Union Territory )!

Instead of living with the duplicity of being "officially prohibited" but still with one of the highest figure of drinkers in India, it's high time to face the reality and lift prohibition in Manipur.

Unfortunately, we do have enough CSOs living with the illusion and moral high ground of 'prohibition', but still complaining about untimely Government salaries without bothering about the possible source of revenue for the State exchequer.

It is a matter of record that Manipur has complete prohibition since 1991 (though relaxed in 2002 in five hill districts), but the ground reality is best illustrated by naughty winks of many once evening sets in, mass availability of official "army", non-army and local liquor versions in increasingly mushrooming liquor vendors in every nook and corner, cases of death on account of spurious liquor including 5 fatalities in September, 2017 etc. Seemingly, the whole load of genuine liquor in Manipur is supplied by the army, which itself needs an investigation !

True but very sad for drinkers, there is no Fundamental Right to drink or carry on trade or commerce on alcoholic products under Part-III or any other part, Article, Clause, proviso, coma, semicolon of the Indian Constitution, as confirmed by a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court of India in Khoday Distilleries vs. State of Karnataka (1995) 1 SCC 574.

On the contrary, Article 47 of the Constitution casts a Part-IV (non-binding) obligation on Governments to "bring about prohibition of the consumption except for medicinal purposes".

Legal position notwithstanding, the following issues arise:

1. Has Liquor prohibition failed in Manipur ?

The latest report by the National Family Health Survey-5 (NFHS-5), 2019-21 is a clear indictment of unquestionable liquor prohibition failure in Manipur. The impracticability of total prohibition in Manipur is highlighted by the factum of the almost "cottage industry" status of liquor brewing, livelihood and cultural ethos of many communities in Manipur.

If liquor consumption is only getting worse despite more than 30 years of prohibition, the only inevitable conclusion is that prohibition has miserably failed. The best course forward will be to allow its sale through tax-paying and guarded licensed outlets, just as we used to see pre-1991. Just as the saying goes, if something cannot be prevented, regulate it and derive optimum benefits and fill the State coffers.

Prohibition as a policy has failed throughout human history – be it Xia Dynasty (ca. 2070 BC–ca. 1600 BC) in China, Hammurabi's (ca.1772 BCE) ban on sale of beer for money, Canada during 1907 to 1948 (Prince Edward Island), Russian Empire and Soviet Union during 1914 to 1925, Iceland during 1915 to 1933, Norway during 1916 to 1927, Finland during 1919 to 1932, Untied States during 1920 to 1933 etc.

The story is more or less the same in India. Haryana, Andhra Pradesh and Bihar had to junk prohibition. The Gujarat model of prohibition since 1960 is reportedly not a success as local brew continues to be available in abundance (not to discount other forms of liquor flowing in from other States). In Bombay, it gave rise to the Bombay underworld and eventually figures like Haji Mastan, Karim Lala, Dawood Ibrahim etc. Even in the USA, prohibition did not reduce alcohol consumption but gave birth, inter alia, to the Italian Mafia and bootlegging.

Though Manipur and Nagaland have been dry since 1991 and 1989 respectively, we do not see any step to curb local brew production, with good friend Assam standing like a rock for steady flow of other forms of liquor, just as UP and Bengal have stood by Bihar in "these very difficult times" for drinkers.

While we have read of brave police raids and seizure of alcoholic products from hotels, small shops, restaurants etc., we also know it equally well that some habitations are left scot free lest raiding such places is perceived as interference with local traditions and customs. Similarly, for the Koli population in the coastal districts of Gujarat, liquor is a staple and they brew it locally and there is nothing much the Government can do. Given this position, it could perhaps be in public interest to legalize local brew, allowing its production, subject, of course, to standard quality benchmarks and safety standards.

2. Would liquor consumption spike if prohibition is lifted ?

With so much abundance of army, non-army, local versions of liquor availability in every nook and corner of Manipur, we can safely infer that those who have to drink are drinking and teetotalers may not necessarily drink just because of official availability of regulated, branded bottles.

Our people to get more practical and help the Government with more revenue flows instead, while ensuring standardized drinks, without exposing many to urea- inflicted liquor brands and other unofficial versions of known brands.

3. Revenue Flow to the Government

The most important benefit of lifting prohibition will be substantial revenue flow to the State exchequer. Imagine the amount of revenue from sale of alcoholic products in different States for 2015-2016 (as per figures released by State Excise Departments).

For Tamil Nadu, it was Rs 29,672 crore, Haryana – Rs 19,703 crore, Maharashtra – Rs 18,000 crore, Karnataka – Rs 15,332 crore, Uttar Pradesh –Rs 14,083 crore, Andhra Pradesh – Rs 12,739 crore, Telengana – Rs 12,144 crore, Madhya Pradesh – Rs 7,926 crore, Rajasthan – Rs 5,585 crore, Punjab – Rs 5,000 crore etc. Excise duty on alcohol is the third-largest source of a State's own tax revenue (on an average), with an estimated contribution of 12.5 per cent in 2019-20.

States' budget data published by the RBI in its annual publication titled "State Finances: A Study of Budgets" show that the excise duty on sale of alcohol at the all India level for 2019-20 was estimated at Rs 1,75,501.42 crore (Rs 1.75 lakh crore), while estimating States' own tax revenues for the year at Rs. 14,09,325.33 crore (Rs 14.09 lakh crore).

Now, we know how much so-called dry States like Gujarat, Nagaland, Manipur etc. are losing out on such an important revenue stream ! When it comes to Gujarat, it will grow with or without prohibition because of its topographical and demographic reasons!

4. Public Health Hazard

Incidents of death on account of adulterated alcoholic drinks can be better controlled through regulated manufacture and sale of alcohol. With prohibition, what was once legally consumed still continued to be consumed but unlawfully, encouraging bootlegging, liquor mafias, spurious liquor consumption and a corrupt police.

It was in September, 2017 that 5 people died in Manipur after consuming spurious local brew. 2009 alone saw Gujarat with one of the worst hooch tragedies, which claimed 136 lives in Ahmedabad; hundreds of similar incidents have also been reported in other States.

Prohibition is arguably nothing but political posturing targeted at womenfolk as vote-banks and possibly at teetotalers for arguably giving them a false moral high. Prohibition has never worked as effectively as it is intended to; it only criminalizes sale and consumption of alcoholic products with serious consequences for State economy, public health and people's livelihood.

Now that, the present political dispensation is well placed and can afford to take drastic steps in the very beginning of its second term (just as the case of 2016 demonetization, howsoever controversial, in the middle of Modi's first term).

If at all lifting prohibition is unpopular in the beginning, the negative narrative, if any, would expectedly filter away when the next election comes ! Time to focus on war on drugs, not on liquor for both are incomparable in any sense of the term and on any benchmark whatsoever !

* Ngangom Junior Luwang wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is an Advocate at Supreme Court and Corporate Lawyer
This article was webcasted on May 23 2022.

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