[Editorial] Hooch Ban

Recently, more than 40 people died in Botad district of Gujarat in a hooch tragedy. The incident, that too in a dry state, has pulled up the question of the effectiveness of prohibition.

What is hooch?

  • Hooch refers to an inferior quality of liquor that is brewed in unregulated shanties.
  • This is illegally manufactured and don’t attract excise tax.
  • This drink is generally made using yeast (extracted from plants), fruits, jaggery and water. In some cases, bootleggers even add organic wastes and battery acid to the mixture.
  • As the quantity of concentrated alcohol produced through this method is very little, it is diluted with water and other additives like methanol.
  • Since this is hit and trial method of alcohol production, there is a high risk of the product being unsafe. For instance, the methanol in hooch can lead to:
    • Breathlessness
    • Blindness
    • Slow motor response
    • Even death
  • Such liquor is commonly sold in dry states i.e. states that have imposed a complete ban on liquor.

Which states have banned liquor?

Currently, 4 states prohibit alcohol:

  • Mizoram- under Mizoram Liquor Prohibition Act, 2019
  • Gujarat- under Gujarat Prohibition Act, 1949
  • Bihar- under Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016
  • Nagaland- under Nagaland Liquor Total Prohibition Act, 1989

What are the consequences?

  • According to data, given in the Lok Sabha, 5 states which reported the highest number of deaths from hooch consumption between 2016 and 2020:
    1. Bihar
    2. Chhattisgarh
    3. Madhya Pradesh
    4. Karnataka
    5. Punjab
  • While Prohibition makes alcohol illegal, the drink continues to hide in the black markets.
  • By driving production and sale underground, the consumers are exposed to a lot of health risks. Between 2016 and 2020, India recorded more than 6,000 deaths due to hooch consumption.
  • In addition to this, the state loses tax revenues, while criminals line their pockets.
  • Prohibition cases are unnecessarily jamming up the judicial system, which ought to be employing the time in clearing more-pressing criminal cases. Some 30 lakh prohibition cases are currently pending trial. About 25% of criminal cases registered under special laws and local laws were prohibition cases in 2020. About 50% of these cases are from Gujarat.

What is the way ahead?

  • Liquor prohibition is one of the Directive Principles of State Policy, listed in the Constitution. However, no state has been able to achieve prohibition with enduring effectiveness. This is the case world-over.
  • However, the policy of prohibition is a potent slogan for politicians for liquor damages an individual’s health, finances and relationships. Also, there is a certain moral appeal in calling for a total ban.
  • Using the law as a sledgehammer to stop alcohol consumption is counterproductive– as seen from experience.
  • For instance, the Gujarat High Court is looking into petitions challenging the constitutional validity of Gujarat Prohibition Act, on grounds that it violates fundamental rights– including the right to privacy. It is also being criticised for its alleged arbitrariness in allowing tourists (from outside Gujarat) to consume liquor in the state. The legislation gives sweeping powers to the police, who have wielded them against political protestors in the past.
  • Prohibition, on one hand, throws open the opportunity for rent collection and on the other, allows police to selectively apply its provisions.
  • Some political parties attempt to set a moral example by barring alcohol consumption among the party members- but in practice, this often turns out to be comical hypocrisy.
  • Instead of clinging to dogmas and unrealistic goals of social reform via coercive laws, the government would do well to hold honest discussions on prohibition.

Conclusion:

Liquor is injurious to health. However, prohibition breeds a parallel economy that engenders criminal rackets and corruption- making it far more harmful than legal drinking.

Practice Question for Mains

Examine whether prohibition is the answer to Article 47 of the Indian Constitution. (250 words)

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