While the idea of banning alcohol sounds like a great political strategy, but it never works.

 

My first brush with the drug menace in Rajasthan took place during my two-month long visit to Barmer in 2014. This was after my visit to Punjab and the situation needed urgent redress, but no one believed me when I told them the story. For a long time, political corridors in both New Delhi and Jaipur have either denied the existence of the problem, or have doubted the scale of the problem.

As per a United Nations report, India is wedged between the world’s two largest areas of illicit opium production, the Golden Crescent and the Golden Triangle. This proximity has been viewed as a source of vulnerability, since it has made India both a destination and a transit route for opiates produced in these regions. This fact continues to be important in defining drug trafficking trends on the subcontinent. However, the extent to which heroin seized in the country can be sourced to the diversion of licit opium grown in the country, is a matter which continues to be debated.

Golden Crescent is the route through which drug cartels enter India—mainly Punjab. The clandestine land routes of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan collectively constitute the Golden Crescent, also called the “silk route” of drugs. Heroin, poppy husk, opium, and synthetic drugs are the four kinds of drugs that enter India.

Opium and poppy husk, referred to as “doda post” in local parlance, was produced and sold in large quantities in Rajasthan. Indeed, till 2016, government sold doda through government owned thekas. There were 19,000 licensed and lakhs of unlicensed doda-post consumers in Rajasthan. Government of Rajasthan banned doda sale in the state, but as with all bans, placing it is one thing and the effective enforcing of it quite another. In light of the recent Rajasthan High Court notices to Centre and the state on imposing total prohibition on the use of alcohol in the state, it is required to look into the issue of drug use in the state.

While the idea of banning alcohol sounds like a great political strategy, but it never works. In fact, it is counterproductive and is a rent seeking exercise for the enforcement agencies. Several states have experimented with prohibition at some point of time or the other, but since it has not worked, they eventually repealed it.

Alcohol was banned in Haryana in 1996 by the Bansi Lal-led Haryana Vikas Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party government. The ban was removed in 1998 after the state government lost Rs 1,200 crore (Rs 12 billion) in revenue.

In Andhra Pradesh, N.T. Ramarao imposed a ban on alcohol in 1995. However, the AP government soon realised that it couldn’t fulfil its promise of providing cheap rice and electricity, without revenue from alcohol. In 1996, after NTR died and his son-in-law, Chandrababu Naidu took over as Chief Minister, the ban was lifted. Naidu admitted that illicit brewing had increased 20 to 30 times during the ban.

Last year, Mizoram put an end to its 17-year-old ban on alcohol. Manipur (only in capital Imphal) and Nagaland are also thinking of doing away with prohibition. Earlier this year, Manipur Chief Minister O. Ibobi Singh told the state Assembly that it was “about time prohibition [was] withdrawn”, while Nagaland Chief Minister T.R. Zeliand described his state as the “wettest dry state” because of the rampant sale of illegal alcohol.

Gujarat is the only state where prohibition has consistently existed since the 1960s but has never been effective.

When there is total prohibition, the worst affected are the poor, the SCs, STs and OBCs, who are penalised and punished by enforcement agencies. Let’s take the example of Bihar. In the month of April 2018, when Bihar completed two years of prohibition, jail officials compiled a caste wise list of detainees. Of the 122,392 arrests under the prohibition law in two years in the state’s eight jail circles, caste profiling was done in the three jail circles of Patna, Gaya and Motihari. These three circles alone constituted 67.13% of the total arrests made under the prohibition law. According to this, the Scheduled Castes accounted for 27.1% of the arrests, while their share in population is just 16%. The Scheduled Tribes make up 6.8% of those arrested, but form only 1.3% of the population. The OBC share is 34.4% of the arrests, while they comprise 25% of Bihar’s population. Thus, it’s obvious that the rich and the upper castes generally find a way to escape the law.

In Rajasthan, any attempt to impose total prohibition will, in turn, cause a rise in the illegal sale and consumption of cheap drugs that are easily available in the state, as districts such as Ganganagar, Hanumangarh, Barmer and Jaislmer are entry points for these. In addition, districts such as Chittorgarh, Bhilwara and Udaipur have been traditionally cultivating poppy.

It is estimated that a substantial section of Rajasthan’s population, primarily in the rural areas, has been involved in substance abuse. Banning alcohol will push a larger section of the population to drug abuse.

A stringent fine on drunk driving after a Supreme Court judgement has remarkably reduced the number of such cases. Similarly, better enforcement of laws and heavy taxes on alcohol will help decrease its use. Last but not the least, awareness programmes among people will be a bigger deterrent than banning it. For example, increasing the size of cancer patients’ photographs, warnings on tobacco products such as cigarette and gutkha have had remarkable success in the past few years. This was backed by a strong awareness campaign, advertisements, etc.

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