This piece was originally published by the Statesman.
Earlier this week, the government of Kerala outlined its intention to make the state “liquor free” by closing bars, implementing alcohol-free days, and restricting sale to ‘five-star’ hotels and traditional toddy shops. The end goal, Chief Minister Oomnen Chandy claims, is to implement “total prohibition” by 2024. Kerala is enduring a growing rate of alcohol misuse, with thousands of alcohol-related road deaths annually, and over-filled hospitals treating patients with alcohol-related diseases. Additionally, Kerala has the highest per capita consumption rate in the country; in 2011, a study reported that Keralites – on average – drink 11 litres of alcohol per year, more than double India’s national average (4.3 litres). It is undeniable that the harms caused by alcohol in Kerala need to be urgently addressed, however, prohibition tends to produce more problems than those that it is meant to solve.
Kerala’s lawmakers need look no further than Prohibition in the United States in 1920. The law was repealed just 13 years after its enactment due to numerous disastrous consequences that resulted from pushing the trade into the black market. Notably, prohibition led to increased corruption among police and politicians, thousands of deaths attributed to unregulated alcohol, and the expansion and empowerment of the Mafia. Similarly, in Kerala, criminal syndicates – who currently make their money by means of extortion, trafficking drugs, and other illegal activities – will soon be able to monopolise the multi-crore trade of Kerala’s most popular drug: alcohol. The unintended but unavoidable reallocation of these funds to criminal enterprise rather than the public sector will be one of the most devastating effects of prohibition. The state government collects around ₹8,000 Crores (US $1.3bn) annually – 22% of Kerala’s total tax revenue – from alcohol tax, some of which has been allocated to rehabilitation and medical treatment for alcoholics. Once the Chief Minister’s dream of “total prohibition” becomes reality, this revenue will instead be directed to the pockets of dangerous criminals and corrupt officials.
The battle between Kerala’s legislators and alcohol businesses has actually been ongoing for several months. A significant concern among business owners is that the law is discriminatory – as wealthier bar-owners who can reach the government’s high standards may continue business as usual for the time being. Saji Cyriac was a partner of the Sea Blue Bar in Kochi until March 31st, when his liquor license and that of 417 other Kerala bars were denied renewal by the state government. “The government shut us down because we cannot reach five-star standards,” Cyriac explained. “A person who drinks won’t stop because the bars are shut. He’ll drink anyway. Now, people who want two or three pegs will have to buy a big bottle. This will only increase addiction”. K.A. Janakan, the manager of a small Kochi toddy shop, directly accused the government of bias; “this law means that middle-class and poor people cannot legally buy liquor, but rich people from higher society can.”
The policy seeks to eradicate an entire industry. “Government policy is wrong,” Janakan lamented, “There is already so much unemployment. The government should have thought of how to help employees after the bars closed.”
However, this law is not without its advocates. A customer at Janakan’s toddy shop, who didn’t wish to give his name, commended the government – as long as toddy remained exempt. “[Prohibition] is a good thing,” he exclaimed, “drinking used to be about social bonding. Now liquor is available for everything, to drink every day. Toddy shops still have traditional values; they are a place to talk and chat. Bars run on a business basis, they make alcohol available for young people – toddy shops don’t do that”. The wide availability and low prices of alcohol appear to be contributory factors to the prevalence of alcohol misuse in Kerala, however, the War on Drugs has shown that banning something does not stop its use – it only drives the trade underground. As with discourse around the drug war, discussion of Kerala’s alcohol laws have been marred by subjective views of what is moral and traditional, rather than an objective analysis of the legislation’s potential consequences.
“The law is justified because nothing good comes from alcohol,” the patron said, before pouring himself another glass of toddy.