Some Thoughts on Prohibition

Well, I am back after a hiatus of more than a month – and taking a departure from usual practice, I am writing on a contemporary issue. If you are from Kerala, you would already have guessed what it is: the decision of the state government to close down all bars in the state and implement total prohibition within ten years. Most Keralites look at this decision with incredulity – for them, eternal peace between Israel and Palestine is a more credible scenario than a liquor-free Kerala. For those who do not know Kerala, a bit of more explanation is required.

Kerala, the small taste at the southernmost tip of India which has been included as a must-see destination in the BBC’s bucket list, and which is called “God’s Own Country” by its tourism department, is a virtual paradise for drunkards. The state consumes three times the national average in liquor: its state-run beverage outlets register record sales during each of the state festivals and on New Year’s Eve (in fact, each time breaking the previous record). Kerala government earns it main revenue from Hindu temples and alcohol sales – very “spiritual” indeed! The people who hold government contracts to supply liquor are dubbed “liquor barons”.

Liquor is a serious social problem in Kerala. Most of the men from the low income categories spend most of their earnings in liquor, and domestic violence is rampant. This was part of one of the nonsense songs that children create from time to time, some ten-fifteen years back:

“…Shappilonnu keranam,

Arakkuppi adikkanam,

Veettilekku chellanam,

Avalkku randu kodukkanam,

Te! Te! Te!”

(…Make a visit to the bar,

Drink half a bottle,

Go home,

Give her two slaps,

Bang! Bang! Bang!)

For children to use these words as skipping-rope rhymes, one can imagine what the state of the country must be.

To feed the insatiable thirst of the Malayali for alcohol (and also to feed the insatiable thirst of the liquor baron to make a quick buck), cheap liquor is many a time adulterated with Methyl Alcohol during festival times: resulting in massive numbers of deaths and disablements. After each Onam, Christmas and New Year, Kerala wakes up with the stories of liquor tragedies splashed across the front pages of the state dailies. It has become so common that we no longer feel anything when we see such news; rather, we expect it. When a political party calls a “hartal” (general strike) we Malayalis celebrate it by buying a bottle of rum and a kilogram of chicken the previous night, and having an orgy on the day. Drunkards wandering around on the street or asleep in the ditches after twilight are common scenes. The only place you will see a truly disciplined Keralite is when he stands in the queue at the local government outlet selling alcohol.

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Given all this, most decent people should agree that a ban on liquor is a good idea – even people who enjoy their “chotta peg” of Scotch in the evening (like me). But is it? Will it solve the problem? I am ambivalent about this.

Prohibition has been tried many times in history and failed miserably each time. The most famous example is perhaps the United States of America between 1920 and 1933. The Mafia grew strong on the illicit production of liquor, known as bootlegging. Wikipedia says:

Organized crime received a major boost from Prohibition. Mafia groups limited their activities to prostitution, gambling, and theft until 1920, when organized bootlegging emerged in response to Prohibition. A profitable, often violent, black market for alcohol flourished. Powerful criminal organizations corrupted some law enforcement agencies, leading to racketeering. Prohibition provided a financial basis for organized crime to flourish.

Rather than reducing crime, Prohibition transformed some cities into battlegrounds between opposing bootlegging gangs.[citation needed] In a study of more than thirty major U.S cities during the Prohibition years of 1920 and 1921, the number of crimes increased by 24 percent. Additionally, theft and burglaries increased by 9 percent, homicides by 12.7 percent, assaults and battery rose by 13 percent, drug addiction by 44.6 percent, and police department costs rose by 11.4 percent. This was largely the result of “black-market violence” and the diversion of law enforcement resources elsewhere. Despite the Prohibition movement’s hope that outlawing alcohol would reduce crime, the reality was that the Volstead Act led to higher crime rates than were experienced prior to Prohibition and the establishment of a black market dominated by criminal organizations.

Bootlegging is common in all countries which ban alcohol. I have personally drunk liquor brewed from date palms in no less a place than Saudi Arabia. So a ban on alcohol to stop liquor consumption in toto is a Utopian dream – there will always be hard core alcoholics who will find a way to circumvent the law.

The second aspect of my ambivalence stems from the whole authority of a democracy to intrude on the private liberties of people. Almost all the people who argue vehemently for the ban do it from the conviction that what they believe is the absolute right. I have debated the issue with a Muslim fundamentalist and a communist: both of them believed that there was an absolute code of conduct which should be forced upon the populace, and both of them believed it included the absolute abolition of alcohol. In a democracy, the exercise of government control in the personal sphere may not stop with the social “evils”. A vegetarian majority government may ban all meat in the future.

Does this mean that we should allow alcohol its rampant run in the state?

In my opinion, no. But we have to attack the problem at the root rather than at the top. It is like the head of the Hydra where two will grow if one is chopped off. We have to follow the example of Hercules who burnt each neck stub after cutting off the head, so that it could not grow back.

I have recently noticed a curious phenomenon in Kerala. Smoking has all but stopped; so has the chewing of pan, especially among youngsters. Why? Mostly because the romance of smoking has disappeared. During my college days, a cigarette in the hand was considered macho. Now it’s considered foolish. And this sea change has occurred without cigarettes or tobacco being banned at any point of time.

The key factor here is successful enlightenment of the populace. Campaigns on the proven evils of smoking have been very successful. In a highly literate state like Kerala, youngsters are smart enough to understand what’s good for their health. Also, smoking has been de-romanticised.

In contrast, alcohol is still treated very much like a guilty pleasure. The whole “forbidden” nature of the activity – the need for doing it on the sly – make it very attractive for youngsters in their teens and twenties. There is a time in the life of every man (and woman) when the “fruits of sin” seem very desirable. The trick here is to remove the labels “forbidden” and “sin”. You are advised not to drink not because religion or law forbids it, but just because it is bad for your health. This message has to percolate and permeate all levels of society. Literacy alone is not sufficient – proper education is required.

Also, I feel that it is incorrect to treat all kinds of liquor as the same. Fermented spirits like wine, beer and our very own “Kallu” (palm toddy) are relatively harmless compared to distilled spirits. Beer and wine parlours should replace bars. In my opinion, the government is missing out big time in not promoting our palm toddy through toddy pubs among tourists. In fact, where we fail miserably is in providing a hygienic environment where the worker can relax with a drink after a hard day’s labour – and hey, a glass of toddy is not going to kill anybody. It’s not “sin”.

The current measure of closing down bars, even though a bit extreme, may have been necessitated through the current deplorable condition of Kerala. The government should now follow up through education and enlightenment – and proper enforcement. But this is where I am afraid we may fail.