Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa closing 500 of the 6,823 liquor shops owned by the state government on her very first day in office makes for good optics considering the ills of alcoholism in households, from abuse to poverty, affect women the worst. Similarly, in Bihar, where women voters, among other significant groups within the electorate, propelled the Nitish Kumar-led government to power, there is a blanket ban on manufacture, sale, transport and consumption of country liquor and IMFL since April 5. But both Jayalalithaa and Kumar must draw the right lessons from the experiences of Kerala, where a phased ban has been in effect since 2014, and of other states that went with prohibition. According to The Economic Times (ET), the newly-elected LDF government in Kerala is considering a review of the ban, given it has adversely affected tourism, an important revenue-source for the state. The long-term fallout of such bans—bootlegging, the spurt in brewing of moonshine, the surge in consumption of alternative intoxicants and the loss of revenue—would outweigh the benefits.
Tamil Nadu earns more than R27,000 crore in excise duties on alcohol, and replacing this will cause all manner of problems in the state which uses this to fund generous freebie programmes like free electricity for a certain section of the population, waiver of farm loans, heavily subsidised food and gold mangalsutras, among others, prompting Swaminathan Aiyar to paraphrase the title of Upamanyu Chatterjee’s book and call his ET article ‘The alcoholic mammaries of the welfare state’. While Tamil Nadu still has an industry from which to collect taxes, Bihar’s alcohol taxes contributed more than a sixth of its total own-tax revenues of R20,750 crore in FY15. While Nagaland banned alcohol in 1989, liquor continues to get smuggled into the state from Assam, and its largest city alone has 500 illegal bars, as per an estimate by The Morung Express. In the case of Bihar, following its ban, the frontier districts in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh have reportedly seen alcohol sales up 64%, largely on the back of demand from across the state border. There is also the issue of the consumption of other intoxicants rising, apart from the likelihood of spurious liquor sales rising, with often very tragic consequences for those who consume these. Alcohol is a social evil, as is tobacco, but bans will only make the problem go underground. This has to be tackled with social awareness campaigns and other actions as has been done in the case of tobacco and even experimenting with lower levies on less potent forms of alcohol like beer. Channelising welfare-scheme funds to the women in the household is another way to try and ensure households are not reduced to penury due to the head of the family drinking his wages away.