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The politics of alcohol

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  25 Jan 2015 12:00 AM GMT

D. N. Bezboruah

Whenever one talks of alcohol vis–à–vis the government of Assam, it might seem far more appropriate to talk about the economics of alcohol rather than the politics of it. However, it should soon be apparent that despite the instantly visible economic equation, the long–term effects of the easy availability of alcohol in the State point to a more diabolic political intent rather than one of a mere flow of effortless revenues to the State exchequer that is the prime concern of the State government. There was a time when Guwahati had just two liquor shops. And that is how things remained for a few decades even after Independence. Today, we have a situation where one can see five or six or more liquor shops on every street. And thereby hangs a tale that I shall come to very soon. But what pains every citizen concerned about the future of the State and of the coming generations is the tragedy invoked upon the populace by successive elected governments in giving greater priority to the revenue that accrues from liquor rather than to what easy availability of liquor is doing to the younger generation and particularly to frustrated youths in a dispensation where there has been no industrial development for more than 30 years and where the percentage of unemployed youths is the highest in the country.

This unfortute liberalization of licences for running liquor shops can be traced back to 1992. The Congress government under the leadership of Hiteswar Saikia as Chief Minister had achieved what was then regarded as a major breakthrough in tackling the ULFA problem. Hiteswar Saikia announced a general amnesty for all those of the ULFA who were willing to surrender arms and return to what we are accustomed to calling “the mainstream”. A large number of important ULFA cadres surrendered arms and sought opportunities to return to the mainstream. What was probably not known at that time was that many of those who surrendered retained some of their weapons. This lot of ULFA activists came to be known as “surrendered ULFA” or SULFA for short and soon emerged as a more dangerous group of Frankenstein monsters than the ULFA itself. At this juncture several government agencies and experts were requested to propose income–earning activities to provide livelihoods for those who had surrendered. The late Hiteswar Saikia called on me one day to talk about the rehabilitation of the surrendered ULFA cadres. I was aware of some of the proposals that had been mooted for their rehabilitation, and I asked the Chief Minister which of the proposals he had decided to implement. That was when he told me that none of the SULFA guys wanted any proposal that had to do with work. He said they were all looking for ways of making easy money. I then asked him what proposals he had for this irratiol demand. He told me that all the surrendered activists of the ULFA wanted licences for liquor shops. I was rather aghast at this revelation and told him that as Chief Minister of the State it was not his responsibility to provide sources of easy money to those who had surrendered from a militant group. Instead, he had the responsibility of telling them that he had granted them amnesty despite the serious crimil cases (including murder) against them and that he would watch every step they took in order to ensure that they remained on the straight and rrow path and did honest work for a livelihood. Quite obviously, this suggestion did not appeal to him, because about three days later he announced the grant of 147 licences to start liquor shops and even got soft loans of Rs 10 lakh each from banks for each of the licencees. The government of Assam, guarantor for all these loans, eventually ended up repaying them and not the beneficiaries who owned the very profitable liquor shops. The AGP that came back to power in 1996 carried on this tradition of granting liberal licences for liquor shops that the Congress government had started, and this trend has gained momentum with each successive government.

We have now reached the reprehensible state where there can be more liquor shops on a street than eateries and teashops. The time–honoured principle of not having a liquor shop within 500 metres of any educatiol institution has been thrown to the winds. Now we have liquor shops and bars even within 50 metres of schools and colleges. It is hardly surprising that even school students are able to buy liquor without much difficulty despite the farcical notice that says liquor cannot be sold to anyone below the age of 21 displayed prominently in front of every liquor shop. Thus the State government’s policy of liberalizing liquor sales has gone a long way in popularizing liquor and spreading its evil consequences even among school children. And in a society where the unemployed and frustrated youth far outnumber employed people, the easy availability of liquor has brought ruin to many families.

For years, the State government did nothing to cope with the problems arising from the easy availability of liquor. The government’s standard response to all criticism was that the revenue earned from the sale of liquor was essential for the government. No one had really sat down to estimate the losses to both the government and the people arising from the social evils of uncontrolled consumption of alcohol and widespread alcoholism. It is only now, with the Assembly elections of 2016 hovering on the horizon and the people’s anger reaching a crescendo over the large number of highway accidents arising from drunken driving that the government seems to have taken some decisions to reduce the consumption of liquor. One of them is to ban the sale of liquor in shops and bars till 2 p.m. and to have all liquor shops closed on the first and last day of every month. Since liquor shops are customarily open even on Sundays, the total number of selling hours gets reduced as a result of this initiative to about 1,460 hours. Add to this the 24 days that liquor shops will have to be closed on the first and last day of every month. At 12 hours a day these 24 days add 288 hours to the tally. This means that the liquor shops of the State will be closed for just 1,460+288 = 1,748 hours more every year. At present they are closed for about 4,320 hours a year or less (working on an average of 360 days of operation every year). So the number of closed hours will increase by about 40 per cent. The calculations are rough, ignoring the fact that liquor shops and bars are often open till long after the mandatory closing hours. Even so, increasing the closed hours by about 40 per cent could reduce liquor purchases significantly. This is a step in the right direction.

There are those who argue that total prohibition is the only answer to the problems that the government has created through liberal sales of liquor in Assam. However, experience has established that total prohibition creates more problems than it cures. The United States tried prohibition for about 13 years. The outcome was disastrous. From major crime to lawbreaking to ‘moonshining’ (the brewing of clandestine liquor that was sometimes even poisonous) there were numerous social maladies that compelled the US Administration to abandon prohibition. In India too some State governments like Tamil du and Maharashtra did try out prohibition with disastrous results like large–scale poisoning of those who consumed illicit liquor. So those who recommend total prohibition as a way out would be advised to read up a little more on the evil effects of prohibition and what it has done to different human societies. In almost every case, the proposed cure has been far worse than the malaise.

There is no magic wand that will let us get out of the terrible malaise of alcoholism. We shall have to content ourselves with slow cures and a lot of patient counselling of alcoholics. The overall process of cure will have to do with education of the victims of alcoholism. Organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous must extend help, and an errant government that has inflicted great harm on the people must seek the help of such organizations. The people must force the government to desist from issuing any more licences for liquor shops. It must insist on the Excise and the Home departments to ensure that bars and liquor shops close at the stipulated hours instead of operating illegally till the small hours of the morning. And a revenue–greedy government must be constantly be reminded that what it is gaining as revenue from the sale of alcohol is a fraction of what the State would have to spend on curing a major social malaise. The government must also be reminded that it should take necessary steps to stop the leakage of legitimate taxes in order to earn the revenue that the State needs. Goods and services that come to Assam from other States are worth about 10,000 times what they were in 1971. The tax structure being more or less the same, the tax revenue of Assam should be about 10,000 times what it was in 1971 if we can keep it from leaking out. With that kind of revenue, there would be no need for the State to worry about the revenue that accrues from the sale of liquor.

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