I am struggling to find the right adjective. Is the Indian State’s attitude toward alcohol contradictory? Is it illiberal? Is it anachronistic? Or is it, in fact, all three? Which is why, I will settle for troubling. That’s true in two senses. It’s morally – even logically – hard to understand and it also causes many of us a lot of trouble.
I suppose it all goes back to the contradiction between our constitutional view of drinking and the critical role it plays in filling the State’s coffers. Article 47 of the Constitution requires the State “to bring about prohibition”. This is the moral, paternalistic and illiberal goal our founding fathers laid down. But because the revenue earned from every bottle we imbibe is a critical component of government funds, temperance is just a moral direction, not law, except in Gujarat. In Delhi, for instance, the tax on liquor is 14.1 per cent of the city government’ s projected revenue for this year.
Not surprisingly, government policy oscillates between these two poles, the moral stance of abstinence and the need for easy, reliable, if not also ever-increasing, revenue. And because politicians are unable to take a clear and firm stand, we keep bouncing between the two poles, sometimes even trying to reach both at
the same time.
This simple exegesis explains the mess we’ve got into. To begin with, we should never have prohibited the sale of alcohol at the start of the lockdown. In every other self-respecting democracy, alcohol is considered an essential item, as much as food or medicine. After all, people like it, want to drink it and have a right to do so. But, alas, the moral strain in Indian politics came to the fore. On this issue, at least, our governments believe that they know better than us. So, we stopped
all alcohol sales.
Five weeks later, when the exchequer was near collapse and its coffers empty, the government changed its mind. The sale of alcohol was permitted. But the paternalism that determines how we view popular taste retained its hold. So rather than opening all points of sale, we barely permitted 20 per cent. In Delhi, only 150 shops selling liquor out of a total of 863 raised their shutters. That guaranteed we would
have a problem.
Any thoughtful politician would have known after five weeks of forced abstinence, the demand for drink would be explosive. So rather than restricting the number of shops that cater to this hunger, they should have thought of creative ways of doubling or tripling them. And if the government is genuinely concerned about “do gaz” social distancing, this is another good reason for increasing the number of off-licences. But our governments did the opposite. After stoking demand to frightening levels, they shrank supply to
almost a trickle!
And then guess what? Once it realised how desperate we are for a tot, the Delhi government decided to truly make us pay for it. With a gleam in its eye that was impossible to disguise at the prospect of empty coffers soon overflowing, it slapped a 70 per cent “special corona fee”! And it did so in the dark hours of the night. The details reveal just how heartlessly opportunistic this move is. The 70 per cent will apply to “the maximum retail price of all categories
Frankly, there’s a lot that diminishes our democracy, but now that I’ve put my mind to it there are few grounds that match up to the cruel and illiberal foolishness of our attitude to alcohol.
Cruel because it denies people what they want, like and, often, need. Foolish because you can’t change tastes and definitely should not try to do so in the middle of a pandemic. And illiberal because as adults we have a right to decide for ourselves. If we can vote in or vote out governments, we can certainly handle a drink or
two or three!
If only I could end with cheers!