Liquor curbs observed in letter, not spirit

It’s not the letter of the law that matters in India, implementation is far more important. So, while welcoming the suggestion by Delhi’s Tourism Minister, Kapil Mishra, that the permissible age for consuming liquor in the national capital should be reduced from 25 to 21 years, we should consider the present anomalous situation which will not change until prohibition is done away with lock, stock and barrel. A strong temperance movement would be a good thing but laws that are widely flouted only invite disrespect for the state.

The Aam Aadmi Party’s opponents in the Bharatiya Janata Party have brought up the question of dengue and hike in prices of onion and pulses as more compelling priorities than lowering the age for alcohol consumption. A former AAP member claims to be “astounded” because Arvind Kejriwal’s party “has arisen from Anna Hazare’s movement and Anna-ji is completely against alcoholism.”

What is more relevant are the social context and effectiveness of laws. There could be no worse indictment of the system than the fact that under 3 per cent of the population pays income tax. Many years ago, the Hungarian-born British economist, Lord (Nicholas) Kaldor advised Jawaharlal Nehru that revenue would increase substantially if tax rates were reduced and collection made more effective. Tax rates were eventually reduced (under P.V. Narasimha Rao) but collection remains as ineffective as ever. In fact, there are indications that the authorities use tax laws not to enhance revenue but to punish political opponents.

When Delhi had a weekly dry day, even government-owned 5-star hotels would make vouchers out with the next day’s date to serve drinks in the room. The barmen at the Ashok and Janpath Hotels have often telephoned me just before midnight to say it would soon be dry day, asking if I would like to place orders in advance. Kolkata’s wine shops kept a back door open on statutory dry days for surreptitious sales. Friends in dry Gujarat warned me once not to accept a drink from a prominent BJP candidate who was notorious for dealing in illicit hooch. Another Gujarati friend who has a liquor licence tells me it costs him a fortune in legal and illegal fees.

Underlying such abuses is the Indian posturing that drink is both foreign and immoral. Keeping up the pretence, the government camouflages exports of whisky, rum and gin as “IMFL” (India-Made Foreign Liquor) or “potable alcohol.” At the same time, recognising that indigenous alcoholic drinks are part of the lifestyle of village India, the authorities manufacture cheap liquor from sugarcane, rice or coarse grains and sell it through highly profitable licensed shops that are regularly auctioned by the government for huge sums.

The alcohol content of these country drinks is not supposed to be more than 40 per cent. But it can be closer to 60 per cent, with all manner of poisonous ingredients like methylated spirits and boot polish spiking the drink. Improperly distilled liquor can include hazardous levels of methanol — a toxin commonly found in antifreeze and windshield wiper fluid that cause blindness and even death when ingested. Such brews take toll of hundreds of lives every year in a country that is piously dedicated to prohibition.

Weeks after at least 25 people were killed from a drinking spree in Mumbai, the city’s police spokesperson claimed that details like the type and make of the liquor, how many people drank it and where it was distilled were still under investigation. Any ordinary Mumbaikar would have told him these are hardly secrets – the poisonous liquor is brewed and sold in the city’s jhuggi jhonpris. But demolishing them would deprive the police of a rich source of protection money.

Given how crime feeds on crime, it seems farcical to talk of a permissible drinking age. The first time I was taken to a pub in England by a group of British students at my university, the publican asked me my age and made me sign a form because I looked so young. Will the police in Mumbai, Kolkata or any other Indian city ever do that in either illicit drinking dens or smart bars? Will they dare to impose an age limit in the Lodi Road restaurant in New Delhi where the menu shows Dom Perignon champagne costs Rs 25,000 a bottle? Or in the unlicensed bar in the Tamarind Court restaurant overlooking the Qutub Minar in Delhi’s Mehrauli where Jessica Lal, a model working as a barmaid, was murdered?

The top and bottom ends of society are outside the purview of the law. The very rich and the very poor are their own masters and make their own rules. If the AAP administration ever does act on Mishra’s suggestion, it will be only for the relatively small law-abiding middle classes who also pay income tax.

In theory of course, the Tourism Minister’s proposal is unexceptionable as he himself told reporters the present minimum age for drinking is far removed from ground reality.  Philosophically speaking, he is also justified in arguing that after a certain age, young people should have the freedom to exercise their choice without government interference.

Delhi is not the only state where 25 is the minimum legal drinking age. Punjab, Haryana, Maharashtra and Meghalaya, which have the same age limit, can hardly be said to preserve and protect India’s pristine culture which is endangered in Goa, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh because of their lower drinking age. As Mishra hit out politically, “If the BJP thinks that by lowering the age there is a threat to our culture, then it should save the culture in Goa, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh, while the responsibility of saving culture in Delhi rests with us.”

Indians attain maturity at 18. That is the age at which they can vote, join the armed services or qualify for a driving licence. The legal age for marriage is 18 for girls and 21 for boys. It is absurd to say that someone who can fight for his country, marry and father children is too young to have a drink.

I am not sure though whether Mishra’s motive is to iron out illogicalities or earn more tourist dollars by making it easier for young foreigners and other travellers to get a drink. But whatever the reason, he deserves support. Alcohol consumption is technically prohibited in Gujarat, Manipur, and Nagaland as well as the union territory of Lakshadweep. Kerala has threatened to implement almost full prohibition of hard liquor in phases over 10 years starting from third quarter of 2014. Such variations only make it easier to evade prohibition laws which, in turn, add to the general disrespect for all laws.

The Seventh Schedule makes prohibition a state subject, but the Centre can set a precedent for rational behaviour if the BJP were less self-righteous about morality.

Sunanda K Datta-Ray

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