Sunday, November 29, 2009

Busting the Popular Myths of Gujarat’s Prohibition

(This is a guest post I wrote for Repeal Prohibition: Life, liberty and beer in Gujarat!, an excellent blog on the subject anchored by Anirudh Singh Bhati, a law student in Gandhinagar, and a friend from high school.)

Myth: Pubs, bars and drinking are against Indian culture.

The consumption of alcohol and other intoxicants is as ancient as Indian culture itself. People of the Indus Valley were known to produce liquor by fermenting grains and fruits. The consumption of Soma by Hindu gods is spoken of in glowing terms in the Vedas. Drinking isn’t against Indian culture. It’s one of the elements constituting our highly nuanced way of life.

Myth: Prohibition saves people from alcoholism.

This is akin to saying that every smoker is a chain smoker, or every chocolate eater is chocoholic. The intemperance of a drinker mixed with other psychological traits lead to addiction. You don’t ban cars because some cause accidents. Most people don’t even own cars. Similarly for drinking, it’s pointless to demonise a harmless activity which some people indulge in.

Myth: Drinking is immoral and leads to crime.

The act of drinking itself is harmless. Millions of people drink billions of glasses of alcohol every day. They do not find the need to murder, steal, rape and arson. A huge majority of Indian states have not banned alcohol, and their citizens carry out the alcohol trade peacefully. So are all these millions of drinkers evil and immoral? Of course not.

Myth: Drinking ruins your health.

So does eating cheeseburgers and pizzas. Or smoking cigarettes. Chips, toast and beans can kill. But onlywhen consumed in all the wrong quantities. Drinking in moderation, it is known, can have health benefits. Moderate drinkers are known to have sturdier cardio-vascular health. They are also known to be better guarded against hypertension, dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Myth: Prohibition in Gujarat works.

It doesn’t. Alcohol is a thriving trade in Gujarat. Rediff.com says the trade was worth Rs 100 million in 2002. Kingshuk Nag, Times of India Ahmedabad’s editor, says the Gujarat government loses Rs 2,500 crores each year in excise duty by sustaining prohibition. Imagine the revenues and employment it can generate by repealing the monstrosity that is the Bombay Prohibition Act 1949.

In Ahmedabad, a phone-call to your local bootlegger would have your fix delivered to your doorstep in 30 minutes flat — only at two or three times the price it sells for in neighbouring states.

None of this money is accounted for. The trade thrives with the complicity of the underworld, police, politicians and bureaucrats, who, no doubt, get their “cut”.

Prohibition requires crores of taxpayer money to be diverted into enforcing a draconian law to keep people from the harmless act of enjoying a harmless drink.

Myth: Drinking ruins poor families.

If true, it’s another case to repeal prohibition. Refer to the hooch tragedy of July 2009, where more than 100 daily wage earners from Ahmedabad’s slums lost their lives. In the absence of watering holes, they’d turned to bootleggers, bought spurious liquor, and paid with their lives.

Myth: This is Gujarati/Gandhian culture, we want it thus.

Prohibition makes decent citizens behave like criminals. Period. We know alcohol is easily available in Gujarat. But why must you cower like criminals to procure it?

Mahatma Gandhi, a great man no doubt, stood by ideas of personal discipline and non-cooperation and non-violence to end British rule in India. But the British have gone home, and so must this silly law. As long as we let a nanny state tell us what to do with our lives, we can’t consider ourselves truly free.

I leave you a clip from the blog by Sauvik Chakraborty, titled Aspects Of Our “Common Loss”, which best sums up the situation:

Since bars are few and unaffordable in Delhi, most of the drinking goes on surreptitiously, in dark street corners, inside cars, in all kinds of shady places. Indeed, visit any sarkaari booze shop in Delhi and you will find, quite close to it, a private shop selling bottled water, soft drinks and plastic glasses. If you stick around the area for a while you will gather what is happening: ordinary people buy a “quarter” (180ml) bottle of some harsh grog, pick up water and a glass next door – and head for the nearest dark corner.

I joined a group of such happy drinkers in a dark corner some weeks ago. We all poured our drinks and I said “cheers” and took a small sip. All the other guys put their glasses to their mouths and did an incredible “bottoms up” – because they were too scared to hang around too long dithering over their drinks. No one wants to fall foul of the cops.

If anything, drinking in this manner is extremely uncivilized. We are expected to enjoy our drinks, sip them slowly, roll the fluid about the mouth and feel the taste. Enjoy! My companions in the dark corner did not enjoy their drinks at all. Their faces, after knocking back stiff harsh grogs in one shot, reflected great suffering rather than enjoyment. I felt sorry for them – and for their livers. And my hatred for the excisewallahs grew a lot stronger.

Comment away, even if you disagree with me, and we shall attempt to debate this like adults. In case you were wondering where I come from: I’ve had about five vodkas all my life and do not consider myself a drinker at all. But all around me are drinkers who’ve never murdered, stolen, raped or set buildings on fire.

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