Paper read in the Government of Maharashtra Seminar on Prohibition held at Bombay on 5,6, 7, November, 1976
Smt. PRATIBHA TAI PATIL,
President of India,
the then Prohibition Minister
Published in National Herald (New Delhi) dt. 12th & 13th November, 1976
Published in Lok Rajya dt.16th April, 1977
By Bal Patil
GENESIS, DIAGNOSIS & PROGNOSIS
Paper read in the Government of Maharashtra Seminar on Prohibition held at Bombay on 5,6, 7, November, 1976
Published in Nation Herald (New Delhi) dt. 12th & 13th Nove.1976
Published in Lok Rajya dt.16th april, 1977
By Bal Patil
Much of the problem of drink has intensely shrouded in ignorance: it has been a case of suppressio veri suggestion falsi suppression of truth and suggestion of falsehood. Take for instance the nature of liquor trade. How many know it unique character different from the common run of trades? As Viscount Astor noted in his testimony before the Amulree Commission, the British Royal Commission on licensing:
“The drink trade differs from practically every other business which provides articles of consumption. It is to the interest of the community to increase and stimulate the consumption of milk and bread etc. It is not to the interest of a community to stimulate and increase the maximum consumption of alcoholic particularly the stronger drinks.’
I think this is a wholesome and salutary angle from which to consider the trading a alcoholic beverages though it might give further creeps to a trade which is already in jitters. India has followed a prohibition policy as a matter of Gandhian faith since pre- independence period. It was one of the main planks of Gandhiji’s constructive programme which was sought to be implemented by the Congrees Governments that came to power in the various States in 1973. but with the resignation of Congress governments at the outbreak of the second world war the programme came to a premature end in 1939.
After independence several States started introducing prohibition. By 1954 one third of the total area in the country and one fourth of the population was under prohibition. Total prohibition was in operation in Madras (Tamil Nadu), Maharashtra, Gujarat and 11 districts of Andhra Pradesh and other sizable areas in Assam, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa,Karnataka and Kerala.
But there was showing down in the implementation of the prohibition policy after 1954. The Prohibition Inquiry Committee went into this problem and the question of the excise revenue collection from liquor.
Later in 1964 the Study Team on Prohibition was appointed by the Planning Commission under the Chairmanship of Justice Tekchand, to study the working of the prohibition programme for the country as a whole and covering problems connected with enforcement of prohibition and excise laws and measures to reduce illicit traffic in trade and improving administration. The Tekchand Report suggested far reaching steps for progressively introducing total prohibition in the country.
At the same time in 1964 the Central Government made an offer to the State Government to reimburse 50 per cent of the loss in excise revenue caused by the introduction of prohibition. But the response from State government was not encouraging. The offer was reiterated in June, 1968 for a further period of five years. But no State has availed of this offer.
On the contrary, the period since 1969 witnessed a reversal of the policy of prohibition. State after State scrapped dry law to increase its revenues. Maharashra State announced a package of measures to liberalise and rationalize its prohibition policy in January 1964 which was criticized as regressive by the Tekchand Committee. The last State to scrap prohibition was Tamil Nadu in 1971. But is reintroduced it in a phased manner in September,1973.
Today there is an intense reconsideration of prohibition policy. The Centre considers that in the new mood it will be possible to persuade the States to reintroduce prohibition with the help of sufficient financial assistance and incentives. In pursuance of this the former Government announced the 12 point plan aimed at reducing the consumption of alcoholic beverages and preparing the ground for the introduction of total prohibition in the country.
The prohibitory guidelines include ban on drinking in public places, stoppage of advertisements related to drink, location of liquor shops away from educational instiutions and their restriction, pay days as dry days, strict prohibition on Government servants’ drinking, no issue of fresh licences for increase of capacity or installation of new distillation and brewing units save for export, tightening of legislation and enforcement, intensive propaganda against evils of drinking and setting of personal example by leaders of public opinion.
Thus the nation is poised for total prohibition. The Maharashtra State Government has just announced its decision to implement scrupulously the 12 Point Programme. The highlights of its new policy are that no new licences will be issued for liquor units, the fees for individual permits would be raised from R.2 to Rs.10 a further demarcation of the location of liquor shops and that country liquor will not be permitted to be drunk on the shop premises. Instead factory workers will be provided with sealed country liquor bottles. The new policy is to come in force from 1st January, 1977.
The course of prohibition policy has not run smoothly so far. The excise revenue earning of the Maharashtra State is estimated at Rs. 42 crores for 1975-76. As the Government had made it clear last year, the State was not so much interested in the revenue from liquor but was more concerned with the health of consumers of illicity liquor.
Prohibition was introduced in Bombay City in 1949 and was extended to the entire State in 1950. After 13 years the State liberalised it from 1st January,1964. Three years later the State Government almost completely lifted prohibition and drinking permits wre issued liberally. The Government also granted licences to manufacture liquor to some suger mills. The State Government’s distillery at Chitali in Ahmednagar district helped produce cheap country liquor by supplying five per cent of its output of industrial alcohol.
Of the 24 liquor factories in the State, fourteen produce country liquor, six India made foreign liquor, and four brew beer. Three more breweries, licenced already, are yet to come up. At the same time liquor shops were given permits liberally. Threre are over 1800 liquor shops, under licence, selling hard liquor while hundreds of restaurants and shops serve beer and toddy, together accounting for an annual business of wel over Rs.200 crores.
Prohibition policy is being pursued according to an important Directive principle of State Policy namely, Articles 47 stating: “ The State shall regard the raising of the level of nutrition and the standard of living of its people and the improvement of public health as among its primary duties and , in particular, the State shall endeavour to bring about prohibition of the consumption except for medicinal purposes of intoxicating drinks
And of drugs which are injurious to health.”
It is in this consttutional and economic context of the Gandhian emphasis that it is instructive to recall Gandhaji’s decisive argument for prohibition that he did not want people to be deceived by the specious argument that India must not be made sober by compulsion. “The State does not cater for the voice of the people.” He said,” We do not regulate and license houses of ill fame. We do not provide facilities for thieves to indulge their propensity for theieving. I hold drink to be more damnable than thieving and perhaps even prostitution. It is not often the parent of both?
The argument for introduction of compulsion to restrain this dangerous propensity to drink is the same as the one in population control and its achievement by compulsion. It cannot be appealed in defence and people have continued to drink from times immemorial are drinking now and will continue to drink. Just as man has procreated from the point of his creation and his procreative behavious has now been subjected to well conceived legislative compulsion, there is no reason why the habit of drinking and human propensity to it cannot be similarly made subject to checks and prohibition in socio economic interest.
More than a decade has passed since the appearance of the Tekchand Report and te public and socio-economic temper of the country has undergone a radical change. There is renewed emphasis on an all India total prohibition policy. It is unfortunately true that liquor lobbies are persistent in their hidden strategies against prohibition. What is disquietening is that the press comments, though conciliatory are still subdued enough to voice caution and highlight obstacles, financial, administrative and criminal in the implementation of prohibition policy.
Restriction on consumption of alcoholic beverages and punitive sanctions are almost as old in the history of humanity as the use of intoxicating drinks. The Chinese assert that as early as the eleventh century B.C. one of their emperors ordered all the wines in the kingdom to be uprooted. The Laws of Hammurabi whose reign in Babylonia is estimated to have been around 2000 B.C. contained drastic regulation as to wine drinkers. In India drinking prevailed from earliest periods in Vedic and post-Vedic and its evil effects have been uniformly condemned in scriptures. The ancient condemnation of drink was more on moral than economic grounds.
The socio economic aspects of the evils of drink and the imperative to curb them and the emergency of temperance movements leading to prohibition are a comparatively modern phenomenon. As Professor Alexander Elster, a German authority says in Alkoholismus: “It is the sociological aspect of the problem i.e. of social hygiene which puts the study as well as the attempts at counteraction into modern perspective. This modern scientific attitude is due to a better distinction between the analysis of the individual and the social aspects of the problems, and national economy, Satate policy and social reform.”
The temperance movement had, initially, concentrated its attention on spiritual guidance through moral suasion, which has certainly an inestimable value in educating the world be drinkers and dissuading confirmed addicts but intemperance is not merely a question of vicious inclination but also of certain misconceptions about the healthful, medical, nutritive so called qualities of alcohol. To combat this a scientific temperance attitude is necessary. And this was first provided in Britian by J. Livesey in his well known “Malt Lecture” of 1928 which is considered as a starting point of the total abstinence movement. He said that one of the causes of intemperance was ‘ignorance’ and emphasized that by the efforts of the temperance advocates “the ignorance long existing respecting the properties of ardent spirits is in a great measure removed.”
Though scientists have dispassionately investigated the deleterious effects of alcohol they have refrained sometimes from drawing specific conclusions of socio economic and legislative nature. This is true as shown in a study, The Action of Alcohol On Man. And this is why as Professor Hermann Levy observes in his authoritative study, Drink, an Economic and Social ,Study, “ the problem of Drink had been hitherto dealt with by two directly opposing sides, the one linked up with the temperance movement and largely packed by the Churches, the other connected with purely private interest, and designed to fight the former – the two hostile camps. ‘Trade and Temperance’ as they have been called.”
Now what are the therapeutic misconceptions about alcohol? Alcohol is generally considered to be a stimulant. But evidence before the Amulree Commission emphasized that in point of fact it has no such property: its action is almost entirely narcotic. By acting on the delicate nerve centres the alcohol paralyese the inhibitions consequently there is a feeling of comfort, self confience. Hence the Commission noted that alcohol is “thus definitely a drug, in that its effect is to modify for the time being, the action of parts of the mechanism of the body.”
An official publication of the Swedish Royal Social Board summed up by saying that “medical progress has proved beyond doubt that alcohole even in small quantities has a paralyzing effect on the systems and secondly, in our modern technically progressive era, with its life of intense strain greater demands are made on personal self control and presence of mind than formerly. Since alcohol in particular benumbs the faculties, its abuse may have been even more disastrous effects now a days than even before.” (Social Work and Legislation in Sweden, 1938)
This is confirmed by modern neurological researches. Chronic dependence on psychosomatic drugs is likely to lower the normal functioning of other cerebral faculties notably the error detecting ones as demonstrated by the Soviet neurologist, Dr (Mrs.) Natalya Bekhtereva, Director of Leningrad Institute of Experimental Medicine. As the article on Alcoholic Consumption in the latest ediction of Encylopaedia Britannica States: “Alcohol as a drug affecting the central nervous system belongs in a class with the barbiturates, minor tranquillisers and general anaesthetics and is commonly classified as a depressant.” The alcoholic effects are biphasic, it acts as an excitant of some functions, but as the alcoholic concentration in the blood increases “the effect is constantly more depressant going to sedation, stupor and coma.”
Besides its narcotic action, alcohol also has a food value in the strictly limited sense that it contributes to the supply of ‘fuel ‘ necessary for the generation of energy for the use of body. But the food or fuel value of drink “is strictly circumscribed by the disadvanatages of its drug action.” And as Dr. Charles Hill, General Secretary of BMA noted : “ It is farcical to speak of alcohol’s food value. It has about as much caloric value in a glass of beer as a knob of bread or a limp of sugar.”
Alcohol taken with meal in moderate quantity may be appetizing. Medically a concentration of 15 per cent of less of alcohol in the stomach which is as high that ordinarily resulting from the moderate imbibing of wine or beer or dilute spirit is not damaging to the mucosa. But one cannot rule out the danger of chronic dependence and the possible cultivation of habit. The same is true of its medicinal qualities which may have efficacy in therapecutically determined dosages and in controlled conditions and hence its medicinal use being exception to the rule cannot be taken as an extenuating factor to exonerate alcohol from its deleterious narcotic effect.
Alcohol is said to cause a ‘ feeling of warmth’, but this is deceptive. Arctic explorers, as noted by John A. Hunter in Alcohol and Life, are forbidden the use of alcohol which especially dangerous in cold climates and because it lessens strength and endurance. Similarly it is erroneous to believe that alcohol has a beneficial effect on efficiency. Eminent medical authorities, after fully reporting on the experiments made, came to the conclusion that alcohol does not exert any great influence on muscular power except in large doses. “ Probably the output of work is unaffected but on the other hand, even small doses definitely diminish the power of the body to carry out manoeuvres demanding precision.” This explains the causal link between drink and traffic accidents.
The Tekchand Committee has laid great stress on the evils of misconceptions about alcohol but has not considered the question why people drink. This is really a crucial factor for consideration of the sociologist and economist. As suggested by Hermann Levy alcohol is consumed neither for its “narcotic function, not for being a liquid food: to a large extent it is taken as a refreshment” because in his opinion the “refreshment element in drink has had the most far reaching effects. For it is the element out of which drinking customs, as distinct from the drinking habit of individuals, have largely grown.”
I think this is an important point to be taken into account when considering the demonstration effect of easy availability of low percentage liquor like beer etc. Drinking the these circumstances becomes just a matter of keeping company, a vogue or fashion, individual can hardly decide for himself to drink or not to drink , it becomes matter of sheer social association and convivial imitation.
This is confirmed by the analysis of alcoholic habit in the Encyclopaedia Brittanica: “ People ordinarily drink alcohol to obtain effects they have been taught to expect. Small amounts are drunk in expectation of reducing feelings of tension, relieving feelings of anxiety and conversely, obtaining feelings of gaiety and exhilaration. A sufficient amount of alcohol wll usually serve the desired purpose. It is, however, likely that the state of expectation combines with the pharmacological action of the drug to produce the desired effect. All these reactions may be the result of the stimulating effect of small amounts of alcohol. But they are in part also made possible by the social and cultural permissiveness typical of drinking situations. Alcohol is not only psychoactive but a socio active drug.
Drinking habit is quite a complex syndrome susceptible to a variety of socio-economic, psycho- physical and even climatic conditions differing from country to country and so it is difficult to say which particular factor will trigger the deleterious alcoholic habit and its effects. Certain nationalities can be singled out as prone to excessive and heavy drinking owing to their peculiar drinking habits and relative cheapness or dearness of liquors.
For example, the U.K. has always been characterized by heavy drinking. Daniel Defoe said of the ‘true born Englishman’ (1701) :
‘In English ale their enjoyment lies,
for which they’ll starve themselves and families.
And Englishman will fairly drink as much:
As will maintain a family of Dutch.”
Daniel Defoe was a satirist of his times but he was also a social reformer keen of improving the lot of the labouring poor. For Adam Smith writing Wealth of Nations some eight yeas later, price of the drink was not the criterion. To him the cheapness of wine seems to be the cause, not of drunkenness, but of sobriety. As noted by him:
“The inhabitants of the wine countries are in general the soberest people in Europe. Witness the Spaniards, the Italians, and the inhabitants of the southern provineces of France. People are seldom guilty of excess in what is their daily fare…. On the contrary, in the countries which , either from excessive heat or cold, produce no grapes, and where wine consequently is dear and rarity, drunkenness is a common vice, as among the northern nations, and all those who like between the tropic.”
The national differentials in drinking habits were also noted by Lord D’Abernoh, an English diplomat, who spoke about the abuse of alcoholic liquor” which marred the English efficiency and gave this country a bad preeminence”. The strength of national movements is co-related to the difference in alcoholic consumption existing between them. But such differences in drinking habits cannot be attributed solely to climate but are also due to the kind of alcoholic drink and most of all to the socio economic factors.
Heavy and excessive drinking is immediately reflected among the poor, labouring classes by being a major portion of their domestic budgets to drink. As it is the portion of the income spent on drinking amoung the working classes it is extravagantly disproportionate as compared to food item expenditure. According to the Amulree Report the drink was found to be nearly six times as great as the bread bill. Hence t is right to assume that if only a part of the expenditure directed in the consumption of liquor were devoted to increasing the expenditure on staple foods a great nutritional change among the labouring classes would have occurred. This cannot be emphasized too strongly. As estimated by Lord Boyd, Orr, an additional expenditure of just eight pence would have been sufficient to average expenditure of all group on fresh milk to the level of expenditure of the highest.
This imbalance in budgeting (domestic) has also a vital relationship with the rational items which are subsidised by the State. Had there been no ration the portion of wage bill spent on food items would have been greater and that on drink narrower. What it amounts to is that assuming that the drinking propensity remains constant even with increasing taxes, the expenditure on drink which already eats into a significant portion of income, the State subsidy on rationing has indirectly abetted it and that the subsidy was financed by the consumers of drink in the form of higher cost of drink. It also means that the drinkers contributed to the budget and real income of the non drinkers derived from artificially low price of the most necessary foods.
Drink has an impairing effect on efficiency, particularly industrial efficiency ad safetly. These have been recognized as causing an adverse impact on output, resulting in absenteeism and accidents and have prompted restrictive legislation. W.H. Rivers noted in his The Influence of Alcohol and other Drugs on Fatigues (1908) that in one of his subjects, “ a subjective feeling of lassitude and disinclination for activity of body and mind” came on within half an hour of the taking of 40cc. Of alcohol, and a fellow workers could recognize the days when alcohol was taken “partly from his lassitude and partly from his very obvious inability.”
The effects of drink were found to be far more disastrous on the military. Llyod George said in 1916 “Drink is doing us more damge in the war than all the German submarines put together. We are fighting Germany, Austria and Drink, and, as far as I can see, the greatest of these three deadly foes is drink.” It has been recently suggested, it is interesting to note, that had Churchill drunk only one bottle less the war would have ended one year earlier.
Drink and Crime
As regards the relation of drink to crime and traffic offences also the evidence is quite considerable. Though one need not go to the extreme assertion that all crime is due to drink it is reasonable to assume that as drink is disinhibatory it will naturally bring the emotional side of the subject to the surface and in a criminally inclined individual this may well does often trigger the commission of offence. As Hermann Levy observes” “Scientists have definitely reached the conclusion that a considerable percentage of offences generally is due to what Germans have called ‘ Deliktsantrieb’, an urge to commit an offence, which is largely fostered by alcoholic drink.”
The British Buckmaster Commission Report came to the conclusion that as a “moderate estimate” about 40 per cent common offences covered by Committee’s investigations were attributable directly or indirectly to drink. The alcoholic effects were most evident in offences associated with passion, such as, assault, willful damage, and crimes of violence apart from murder.
As is clear from the psycho-neurogenic effect noted above of alcohol drink has a definite effect on driving which results in a rising incidence of traffic accidents. Alcohol is involved in about one third of the more than 50,000 annual road traffic fatalities in the U.S. in possibly 5,00,000 injuries, and in more than 1000,000,000 dollars worth of property damage.
Thus social and economic costs of alcoholism and heavy drinking are essentially incalculable. An estimate of 2000,000,000 dollars as the cost of health and welfare serves provided to alcoholies and their families in the U.S. alone suggests measure of world wide effects. Crude projections of the annual costs of alcoholism to the national economy of the U.S. range from 7,000,000,000 dollars to 10,000,000,000 dollars.
The alcoholic problem is not unique to Western countries. The Soviet Russia too is very much concerned at present with the mounting social and economic costs of alcoholism. According to a Soviet demographer it may outweigh revenue from the sale of alcohol, making the Soviet economy the net looser. Drink is blamed for poor labour productivity, divorce and violence. The Russians have adopted stiff measures against growing drunkenness and a novel measure as reported in the periodical ‘Journalist’ (reported in The Economic Times, 31st May 1975) is that workers who are taken in hand on pay day and cannot resist alcoholic temptations, delivered straight to their wives. The procedure, the periodical remarked, demanded the maximum tact, but necessary because absenteeism due to alcoholism was rising.
The patently deleterious effect of alcoholic beverages on productivity and efficiency and the net social and economic loss to any country inevitably point to the compelling need for drastic curbs. Would such interference by the State with the right of a citizen to dispose of his earning and arrange his budget in the manner he thinks fit.? This argument can be easily dealt with by saying that in a planned economy like ours in India, which is moreover an underdeveloped economy, we cannot afford to take risks as to the alarming lowering of the productivity and the general socio-economic deprivation wrought by alcoholism among its population.
It is also argued that prohibition, or even well conceived regulation of drink cannot succeed until and unless there is an improvement of socio-economic standards and educational level. But this is arguing in a circle. It is precisely to give a boost to socio-economic improvement that prohibition is being enforced. However, there is the question of providing alternative channels for expenditure and recreation once drinking is reduced and eventually banned. And there is no doubt that expenditure saved on drink will find outlet in better living conditions.
As regards the ‘refreshment’ function of drink I have above noted that “social and cultural permissiveness typical of drinking situations” is the real cause of rapid proliferation of the consumption of even mild liquors. This point was also noted in a peripheral manner by the Tekchand Committee. The Report said that drinking of alcoholic beverages is common among sophisticated young men from families where parents drink, also number of drinking young men is common in public schools and it is because drinking is common among their teachers accustomed to western life. That is why Tekchand Report categorically says ;
“So long as drinking is a symbol of fashion, the upper strata as also the gilded youth will be drawn to it. They will stop drinking the moment drink is dethroned from the high pedestal of prestige. It has to be made unfashionable. The bottle must lose caste. “Hence the Tekchand Committee depreciated the prohibition introduced in 1964 permitting light alcoholic beverages to person between the age groups 21 to 30 years and said that it was fraught with evil consequences.
The young and drink evils.
This brings to the fore the importance of educating the young on the evils of drink. If is especially important in a matter like drink to provide information to the impressionable youth on the medical, psychological and sociological knowledge of the effects of drink and acquaint them to the dangers of drink. The Handbook of Suggestions on Health Education (The UK 1928) urged:
“Boys and girls should receive appropriate instruction as part of their general training in health , in the dangers and misuse of alcoholic drinks, in the current fallacies about the alleged benefits of alcohol and in the intestimable advantage of sobriety to the individual and the nation. The teaching should be based on the ground of health and fitness, efficiency in work and play, manly self control, consideration of others and good workmanship.”
The Amulree Commission Report made it definitely clear that every child ought to receive “specific and systematic instructions as to the properties of alcohol as it affected health and that this should be regarded as quite routine to the teaching of health in school.”
There is a welcome ban on alcohol advertising but it is not enough so long as liquor continues to flow and no social stigma attached to it. Lord Winterton said to the Royal Commission: “ When I hear for example, that school children are repeating the slogan ‘Guinness’ is good for you’ I understand that the trade is deliberately antagonizing the efforts of the State when it spends public money to inform these children and young people should not drink bear, wines or spirits of any kind.’
Education is certainly a potent instrument in combating potential drink susceptibility but equally important can be the living conditions and alternative forms of recreation and refreshment. Most important among living conditions is improvement in housing. A welcoming meal after work in tenement in clean surroundings could be a potent factors and counterattraction to the temptation of the bottle for the workers.
But there can be counter-attractions which are undesirable like betting, gambling and smoking. These cannot be encouraged especially in the presence of drink because drink and gambling have a way to go together. As rightly observed by Sir Arthur Yapp in his Memorandum to the Royal Commission even from a temperance point of view the harm done through encouraging gambling, betting or dog-racing would far outweigh the benefit as a possible counter-attraction to drink.
The point of counter-attractions, wholesome in character is that they should enable the potential consumers of drink to spend his time away from the liquorshop and in a culturally healthy recreative activity. It is question of proper utilization of leisure and offers considerable scope for devising constructive social means.
In the context of the obnoxious socio-economic effects of drink the value of temperance movements and restrictive legislation leading to prohibition can be appreciated. Temperance movement aims at discouraging the consumption of drink and increase the number of abstainers through moral, educational and scientific voluntary persuasion, while legislation aims at limiting the conditions with conduce to heavy drinking and inordinate expenditure by the public. Both are complementary to each other.
But restrictive legislation does not more than control and suppress abnormal consumption of drink. It is obviously limited in scope, but its value cannot be denied in preventing most obvious dangers and evils of what is termed appropriately as a ‘dangerous trade’. It required control on the same grounds as other dangerous trades and restrictive and anti-drink legislation has to be viewed from the same angle as relating to drugs and motor cars.
But while legislative need for curtailing the consumption of alcohol is clearly undisputed the question is whether it can be enough. When there is control only and consumption continues in a regulated manner the manufacture and trade of liquors still continues and comes to have a powerful vested interest in the continuation of the consumption of alcoholic beverages. The trade naturally wants drinking to be continued, in however limited a manner, in its natural commercial course and thus anxious to increase the turnover. Contrary to this State legislation is keen to restrict it and even eventually enforce total prohibition which is the ultimate aim of 12-point guidelines. How to accommodate these opposite poles of interest in the interim period? And would this contradiction not seriously vitiate the entire programme?
There is a constant lurking suggestion from interested liquor lobbies that drink is not such a serious problem. Hermann Levy characterizes it as a “most dangerous suggestion” because as long as drink continues to be what it is its effects will be severe and obnoxious in socio-economic terms. In the bargain the very complexity of the problem of alcoholic restriction becomes a deterring prospect. “It is unity and diversity which tempts us to frame rules and prescribe specific remedies but it is infinite diversity amid general unity which tempts us at times to give up the task of reform in despair” observed George B. Wilson in his study Alcohol and Nation.
Prohibition .was in force in the U.S.A. for a number of years in the twenties and its repeal has been frequently cited as an example of uselessness of radical form in the alcoholic matters. But is this failure really borne out by facts ? Ideas of right and wrong about alcohol were common in the US since the latter part of 18th century. The temperance movement gained momentum by the middle of the 19th century to become an anti-alcohol movement which culminated in National Prohibition enacted by constitutional Eighteenth Amendment, popularly known as Volstead Act in 1919.
There are pros and cons of the operation of the National Prohibition Act. The main evils attributed to it were corruption, increased drinking, smuggling etc. As regards benefits, there was less consumption of alcoholic liquors after the Volstead Act than before. According to the estimate of the Allorney-General, there was a decrease of 70 per cent in consumption. Prohibition helped people to secure better living conditions, and more domestic happiness and there was regular attendance at work. “A great part of public opinion came inevitably to the conclusion that by and large, prohibition had done untold good to Americans.”
In 1929 the Wickersham Commission was appointed by President Hoover to inquire into the problem of enforcement of prohibition. The Report exposed the weakness as due to “imperfect enforcement”. It referred to “an attitude of hostility or contempt for the law on the part of those who are not unlikely to be leaders in the next generation”. The main weakness was the Report stated “the great mass of testimony is to the effect that the prohibition laws, as they are enforce, are not regarded in the same light as other laws. The prevailing attitude is one of the defiance, resentment or mere indifference.”
The Commission opposed the repeal of 18th Amendment and recommended adequate enforcement with the co-operation of the States. The repeal was hastened, however, by the depression of 1929 which proved to be the last straw. As the ex-Senator
Wheeler put it “the reason prohibition has not been successful is that they have appointed as head of prohibition enforcement a man who has been in the whisky business for last 40 years.”
Major W.B. Wright said “At any time the Federal Government, almost in the twinkling of an eye could have stopped the crooked alcohol business if the US Secretary of the Treasury and the Attorney-General had used the great powers given by the Federal Statutes to prevent and stop such law-breaking. The Federal Government could have enforce the Eight Amendment if there had been a will to do so.”
There was another important factor in the repeal of prohibition. It was the opposition of trade and other wealthy interests. In the US enormous funds were collected to fight prohibition partly from those engaged in alcohol trade on a large scale and also from groups of wealthy businessmen “who regarded the sacrifice of revenue from drink and the consequential increase in taxes on large personal incomes to make up for it as obviously adverse to their own interests. Since drink together with tobacco, represents the most fertile source of indirect taxation it is natural that whenever this taxation is reduced, vested interests must be afraid that the loss will have to be offset by more incisive direct taxation” (Drink by Hermann Levy.)
While the American prohibition experiment and its sabotage by vested interests through lackadaisical enforcement is instructive in the Indian context the above point of taxation and liquor revenue leads to the most adamant obstacle to the enforcement of prohibition. The Union Government’s 12-Point programme and its implementation has already caused concern whether the task will put an unbearable strain on the administrative machinery of the States.
It is also argued that the Union Government cannot lose sight of the fact that total prohibition will cast a heavy financial burden on the States in terms of both reduced excise revenues and additional administrative cost. At the moment the States earn as much as Rs. 300 cores a year from liquor sales and therefore, it is pointed out that even if the Center agrees to reimburse half the bill they will have to cut their plan outlays on productive projects drastically.
The most important point to be considered here is whether excise revenue form liquor can be a proper source of public finance. A fundamental principle of sound public finance demands that the State should not just rely on sources of taxation from which it can most easily get money but link up the policy of public finance vith that of economic and social welfare. Money spent on alcoholic intoxication, though it affords subjective recreation, refreshment, is a wastc of money, and it cannot be thus regarded as the proper source for public finance even if it may be returned to some extent to the productive organism of the nation.
One can recall here pertinently Lord Chesterfield’s famous speech dated February 21, 1943 in the House of Lords on the repeal of the Gin Act. He said : “Luxury, my Lords, is to be taxed, but vice prohibited, let the difficulties in executing the law be what they will. Would you lay a tax on the breach of Ten Commandments? Would not such a tax be wicked and scandalous because it would imply an indulgence to all those who could pay the tax? It appears to me, my Lords, that if so formidable a body are confederated against the virtue or the lives of their fellow-citizens, it is time to put an end to the havoc, and to interpose while it is yet in our power to stop this destruction. I find it (the bill) the most fatal engine that ever was pointed at a people; an engine by which those who are not killed will be disabled, and those who preserve their limbs will be deprived of their senses.”
The Tekchand Committee commenting on this said that the revenue-oriented attitude of Wet States is not “dissimilar” to this and hence agreed with the recommendation of the Prohibition Inquiry Committee (1954-55) for the abolition of this tax. Instead it recommended Sales Tax as more equitable. Here in this context of the complaint of loss of revenue through prohibition and its mitigation on account of the net socio-economic gains to be derived from it it is worth recalling that Sales Tax was first introduced by the ingenious C. Rajagopalachari long ago in order to offset the loss of revenue due to the introduction of prohibition in the old Madras State. Now, the ironical fiscal situation is that Sales Tax has gone on increasing and expanding while at the same time excise revenue on alcoholic beverages too has not abetted.
There is a certain cynicism about revenue derived from liquor through it may be evidently a form of taxation on a wasteful vice. This is clear from the following observation of the British Chairman of the Board of Inland Revenues explaning to brewers that it was not the brewer, distiller or wine merchant who paid the tax on drink but the consumer. “Thorugh your agency I am enabled to extract from the pockets of the people a sum of money and to do this without their knowing anything about it at all. If the unfortunate tax paper knows nothing about it so much the better for me. Where ignorance produces such bliss, do you think it wise enlighten ?”
The Amulree Commission emphasized : “The probable loss of revenue need not to be a matter of great alaram. A sudden withdrawl from the revenue of the total amount of the taxation on intoxication liquor would certainly provide a formidable problem. Reduction of expenditure, it is be to come about, must necessarily be gradual; and it is our belief that the benefits to be derived from the present excessive expenditure would progressively compensate for any loss of taxation yield from that source. It is a difficult matter to question the discretion of the individual to spend his money in the way which seems to him best, but we are bound to record that the evidence which we have received has left upon us the definite impression that a substantial reduction of the present expenditure in intoxicants by all classes is desirable.”
It is also argued that prohibition is an “expensive hazard” because besides loss of excise revenue it also entails considerable expenditure on enforcement. On this point of loss on enforcement Mr. Bharathan Kumarappa who had an occasion to study prohibition in the US both during the its operation and after repeal said:
“Looking at purely from the monetary angle, there is money otherwise spent by the nation on drink and the money which will have to be spent by government on crime and disease caused by drink when we do not have prohibition. To state in simple terms where a drunkard pays Rs.1 as tax on his drink, he pays at least Rs.3 more for his drink, Through prohibition the State has lost Rs.1 it would have got from his drink but the consumer has saved Rs.4 which remains with him for other expenses. The State’s loss is nothing compared with the gain to the consumer. For what does this Rs.4 gain to the consumer mean? It means better food, better housing, better health and education and therefore greater efficiency. Thus what the State lost in the way of drink revenue can be more than fade up by more revenue derived from the efficiency and prosperity of its people. Therefore far from prohibition being too costly, it is drink and the revenue derived from it that are too costly for a poverty stricken nation.” (Why Prohibition?)
Besides loss of revenue it is feared that prohibition brings in its wake a spurt of crimes related to illicit distillation. But this is a fallacious argument in the nature of post hoc ergo propter hoc– After this therefore because of this. The real villain of the piece in all this mess of illicit distillation and criminal activity is half hearted and inadequate enforcement. And this is turn proves to be a double curse even when there is prohibition. For instance, in Punjab illicit liquor is drunk by more than two thirds of the people. The revenue from licensed sale is Rs.44 crores, the loss to the exchequer in terms of illicit liquor consumption is estimated to be Rs.88 crores.
The problem of alcoholic consumption and its prevention through prohibition is really colossal and admits of no half hearted measures. The package of the new rules for the enforcement of its prohibition policy announced by the Maharashtra Government though conforming to the guidelines by the Centre is nevertheless lukewarm in approach. With the best of intentions one cannot see how these rules are going to make an effective impact on alcoholic consumption. The former Chief Minister of Maharashtra complained that he felt bad when partymen approached him for licenses for liquor shops. In consonance with the prohibition policy the State Government would do well to be courageous enough to impound all the licenses for 100 per cent export-oriented cases.
If Gandhiji’s name is to be invoked for prohibition the Government cannot obviously pursue such double standards of abstinence in and manufacture of alcoholic beverages for experts. If the Government means business of prohibition and there is no doubting its earnestness, it must be prepared to go the whole hog of prohibition, and sooner it does the better for the country and the people.
Prohibition is still a State subject and though the Centre has given a 12- Point Plan- very limited in scope- the Central Policy will be connected with the State.