Sucheta Dalal :Drunk Policymaking
Sucheta Dalal

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Drunk Policymaking  

May 19, 2010

The hypocrisy on the alcohol policy is getting worse as Maharashtra claims to raise the drinking age limit to 25


It is now a cliché that India’s youth is permitted to vote and to drive at the age of 18 but cannot legally consume alcohol until 25. Yet, on 12 May 2010, a Mumbai tabloid had a headline saying, “Coming Soon: Booze ban for the under-25.” This, it said, is part of a “de-addiction” policy that is “awaiting only cabinet approval” and will “impose unprecedented restrictions on alcohol consumption.” This would seem bizarre if you didn’t know the already distorted current policy.

A simple Google search gives us this information: “In Maharashtra, a liquor permit is necessary for the purchase, possession, transport and consumption of liquor. Any person above the age of 25 years is eligible for obtaining the liquor permit for preservation and maintenance of his health. Purchase and drinking without a liquor permit is an offence under Bombay Prohibition Act 1949.” Yet, most of us don’t know of anybody who actually owns a permit; the only people who know the rules are those who run bars. More importantly, if the 25-year age limit is already in the rulebook, what was the change headlined by the tabloid about? Sloppy reporting? No. Stricter rules governing ‘boozing’ are being planned, says the minister in charge, based on a representation by the respected social activist Anna Hazare.

Well, stricter rules for liquor consumption, especially by youngsters are, indeed, welcome. But only if they are practical and the state means to implement them. It is more likely that stricter rules will only lead to bigger bribes for getting inspectors to turn a blind eye. Liquor consumption rules do need to be revisited, but only to make them sensible and workable. Firstly, why is the legal bar pegged at 25 to treat responsible, working adults like teenagers for seven years after they are eligible to vote? Why do we continue with the absurd regime of ‘permits’ and ‘dry’ days in a liberalised economy when it is clearly not working even on the ostensible target group, which is daily wage labour? Why do most people in Maharashtra believe that the age at which they can legally purchase/possess/transport and consume liquor is 21? What is the correct rule?

There are other issues as well. The rule says, a person is granted a permit for ‘the preservation and maintenance of his health’ (emphasis added). Clearly, when the law was framed in 1949, it did not foresee women wanting to consume liquor even to ‘maintain health’ and drinking socially for pleasure is apparently not allowed even today.

Secondly, having obtained a permit, you can buy only two litres of liquor every week. So what happens to social drinkers, who like to maintain a well-stocked bar? Will they need to produce proof on demand that their liquor was purchased two litres at a time? What about duty-free purchases where you need to produce a passport but not the permit? Is that legal or illegal? No ordinary citizen knows. I know only one person who dutifully purchases a permit and he says that you can be harassed by government agencies for possessing extra liquor at any time and these archaic rules are, indeed, used by the authorities to throw the rulebook at people.

Yet, most of us living in Maharashtra operate under the assumption that we are free to buy, stock and consume liquor without restriction because that is how it works in practice. Interestingly, liquor rules in every state are different and politicians delight in tinkering with them to keep powerful liquor manufacturers under their thumb. This is one reason why many liquor barons desperately want to be in Parliament.

What makes the Maharashtra situation more peculiar is that the state has been working overtime to make a distinction between fermented beverages like wine and beer and distilled ones, which are considered ‘hard liquor’. This has been supported by Union agriculture minister and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar, who is seen as the messiah of the wine and beer industry. More important, this also seemed to be in line with Maharashtra’s emergence as a serious wine-producing centre of world reckoning. The beer lobby, led by liquor baron and Member of Parliament (MP) Vijay Mallya, was happy to ride along.

So, in 2001, the government announced the Maharashtra Grape Processing Industrial Policy which put wineries on par with food processing. Further, it slashed excise duty and sales tax and reduced the vendor licence fee to anywhere between Rs5,000 to Rs37,500 annually (depending on location). In August 2009, Maharashtra de-linked wine and liquor to ensure that wine attracted lower value-added tax. Clearly, alcohol policymakers have been on a binge of liberalisation.

How does any of this square with the plan to introduce more dry days, higher fines, restrictions on liquor shop locations (not near schools, highways, religious places, government offices and social institutions), ban on consumption of liquor at marriages and parties, and making drunken disorder a non-bailable offence?

“The state policy on de-addiction is almost ready and will soon be introduced before the Cabinet. It’s the need of the hour and no other department of the state is vehemently opposed to it,” reported the tabloid, quoting Shivajirao Moghe, Maharashtra minister for social justice & de-addiction activities.

One would imagine that Maharashtra was suffering an epidemic of drunken and disorderly behaviour where attendance at schools, colleges and even temples had shrunk because people were lying around in a drunken stupor or indulging in such disorderly behaviour that the government needs to lock them up and ‘de-addict’ them! The minister indicates that this problem is so acute that the government is allocating Rs24 crore for its de-addiction programme.

Ironically, far from needing de-addiction, at least the wine industry is stuck in a production glut. Nearly 50% of the previous year’s wine production remains unsold, because the industry miscalculated demand growth. So much so that entrepreneurs like Ravindra ‘Corn Club’ Mhaske want to change the wine marketing paradigm by selling it as a ‘commoner’s drink’.

Maharashtra has many major problems; excessive drinking is certainly not among its urgent concerns. If anything, we need a programme to de-addict politicians and bureaucrats from corruption and graft to ensure better infrastructure, better education policies and institutions, better roads, serious poverty alleviation, more infrastructure including roads, water projects, electricity, irrigation and more economic development. The government knows this too.

But, in a coalition government, playing politics is more important than what is good for people or industry. So even as Subodh Kant Sahai, Union minister of food processing, was telling the wine industry in Delhi (on 11th May) that he would like the wine industry to create jobs in rural India, and wanted to see zero excise duty on perishable products (grapes), Maharashtra is apparently planning harsh curbs on the liquor industry without even differentiating between fermented (wine/beer) and distilled alcoholic beverages.

This sudden rush to tighten liquor rules based on a false alarm is clearly political. We suspect that the ruling Congress in Maharashtra is only using Anna Hazare's representation to play politics to embarrass its coalition partner, the NCP, which is widely perceived to have deep links with Maharashtra’s wine-makers. Once again, politicians will have no qualms about dealing another blow to grape farmers when sales are down because the wine industry is in a shambles
. — Sucheta Dalal

-- Sucheta Dalal