The hooch tragedy that struck Gujarat would not have surprised anyone who knows the state of prohibition there. At the time of writing, 28 people have lost their lives, while many more are battling for theirs. The deaths have been reported mainly from Botad district. It would not be a surprise if there is a significant jump in the toll figure. It is easily one of the worst such tragedies in the country. Reports suggest that local leaders have been warning the police about the rampant sale of hooch in the villages. The irony is that the police gave two hoots to such warnings, leaving the distinct impression that they were hand in glove with the bootleggers. The police are nowhere else as empowered to deal with the illicit liquor trade as in Gujarat. Prohibition has been so intertwined with the state that it was introduced as far back as 1960, ie, since the formation of the state following the vivisection of the state of Bombay. The Gujarat Police have over 60 years' experience of implementing prohibition. What’s more, it is the only state where the death penalty can be awarded to those who sell spurious liquor that results in the death of consumers.
In other words, those responsible for manufacturing, distribution and sale of the illicit liquor that has caused so many deaths in Botad can be awarded the death penalty. However, the incident suggests that the police have been either lackadaisical in enforcing the law or were in cahoots with the merchants of death. It is fairly well known that liquor is cheap to manufacture because all it requires are molasses and other sugary substances, and the distilling technology. The liquor produced is as intoxicating as the best branded products. Yet, liquor is expensive because the Central and state governments impose a heavy excise duty on it, besides other taxes. The bootlegger does not have to pay any excise duty or GST. This brings out the point that there is a huge profit in the manufacture and sale of illicit liquor. Since no liquor — Indian or foreign — is available in the open market, there is a huge demand for the illicit stuff. One can easily imagine what kind of demand there would be for liquor in Gujarat. The bootleggers are merely meeting the demands of the market. In doing so, they make enormous profits, of course, at the cost of the exchequer.
It is difficult to believe that the political leadership in the state is not aware of the goings-on in the towns and villages where liquor is available for those who need and are ready to pay. If anything, it is proof that prohibition is a farce in the state. Of course, it is a noble concept, which is very difficult to implement. Man’s search for the intoxicant is as old as man himself. Nobody knows when exactly he discovered that toddy can be extracted from the coconut and other palm trees. Once he discovered the heady stuff, he never abandoned it. In fact, he has been finding ways to make the natural liquor more intoxicating. Mahatma Gandhi and others in the temperance movement vowed to enforce prohibition once the British quit India. It was with much hope that a statement was included in the Directive Principles of the Constitution —“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”. States like Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Kerala and Tamil Nadu introduced prohibition, only to withdraw it later as it proved to be unenforceable.
Today, prohibition is in force only in Bihar, Gujarat, Nagaland and Mizoram. Periodic reports of hooch tragedies come from Bihar where prohibition was re-introduced by the Nitish Kumar government six years ago. Of course, studies have shown that prohibition results in better law and order and social cohesion. The money saved on liquor is spent on food, clothes, health and education. A politician like Nitish Kumar knows that women voters in the state were the greatest votaries of prohibition. What is lost by way of tax is gained by way of better public health and social peace. However, the success of prohibition is dependent on how strict the government is in enforcing it. In Bihar, special permits for liquor were given to the needy. The printed application form had questions like, 1. Name of the sharabi (drunkard) and 2. Name of the sharabi’s father. The purpose was also to humiliate the applicant. If states like Gujarat believe that prohibition is in their own interest, they should enforce it strictly, leaving no scope at all for bootleggers. Otherwise, they should leave the decision to the people themselves by offering them a choice as in the rest of the country.