For a few weeks on February , Delhi witnessed the unusual phenomena of getting mind blowing discounts on liquor. Shops were advising buy one get one type offers , enticing people to not just buy more but drink more. The liquor business in Delhi was till recently run by the local government which ran shady looking shops colloquially called thekas. The location as well the ambience hardly inspired confidence and the neighbouring states with user friendly shop fronts easily drew more customers , especially from the areas nearing Haryana and Delhi. 

When the Delhi government privatised the liquor trade in 2021, they gave it a few touches to make it lucrative for those bidding for licences. Under the new policy licensees were permitted to give discounts, rebates and concessions on the MRP of liquor as fixed by the excise commissioner. According to the vendors, they paid excise duty upfront and 10 per cent extra, besides the license fee under the new policy, considering it would give them more leeway to operate. Under the discounting scheme, while some retail vendors were allowed to give a one-plus-one (buy one get one free) offer and 40-50 per cent discounts, others were given permission for a two-plus-one (buy two get one free) offer and 40-50 per cent discount, among other concessions on the MRP. In Delhi, for the tax on liquor is 14.1% of the city government’s projected revenue for this year and this was an important fact that the government took into account while changing its policy. 

According to the Confederation of Indian Alcoholic Beverage Companies (CIABC), discounts were proposed and permitted in the bidding process itself. The policy also proposed to start beer vending machines and sale of liquor in tetra packs. However , when unprecedented crowds cropped up at the outlets, bringing in people from even outside Delhi wanting to take advantage of the windfall, there was a relook at the policy causing much heart burn among retailers as well as tipplers. At the time of writing , the matter is in court as discounts have been suspended but the traders say that they had paid huge amounts with the assurance that with a big jump in the volume of sales they would recoup costs and also rake in a handsome profit.

 To stop overcrowding and long queues outside liquor shops, the Delhi government on February 28 issued an order to all the license holders to stop discounts, rebates and concessions given on the MRP. Recently, when the retail vendors license holders filed a petition against the government, the state counsel said that the discounts lead to a drinking problem in the city. The government added that discounting was also leading to an unhealthy market practice deployed purely for short-term business gains by some licensees, causing distortions in the market. It stated that its intent on allowing discounts was to promote consumer choice and healthy competition, and not determination of price by market forces.

The debate on drinking in India is a chequered one , to a great extent influenced by Gandhian thought. This is strange because in a land where the larger Gandhian values of communal harmony are near disappearing , his views on alcohol are assuming a lot of importance. On the 24th of November 1948, the Indian Constituent Assembly debated the draft Article 38 which later found itself as Article 47 in the Indian Constitution. Today, Article 47 envisages a prohibition on the consumption of intoxicating drinks except for medicinal purposes. Article 47, although a Directive Principle, has been fodder to populist rhetoric in election times.

Although made by only 2 members, the anti-prohibitionist arguments, had a palpable impact on the debate.  They argued that (a) it is not true that India must have prohibition because America has it, and its manifest failure in the U.S. must be a lesson for India; (b) the fact that the Congress pledged to it didn’t serve reason to adopt it without question; (c) the success of prohibition in Madras was a myth as a number of people continued indulging in drinks and languished in jails; (d) it was not true that there was cross community approval for prohibition as Christians and Parsis were against it and (e) while Gandhian philosophy was against alcohol, we cannot blindly follow such an ideology without paying heed to the fact that Gandhism was about love, tolerance, and non-violence. Quoting from Harold Laski’s ‘Liberty in the Modern State’ he said, “prohibition goes against the very grain of personal liberty”. Another fundamental objection was that prohibition interfered with the religious rights of certain groups in the country.  For instance, the example of the consumption of rice beer by Adivasis was cited and the assembly urged not to deliberate on the matter until the advisory committee made recommendations on the Scheduled Tribe areas as it affected their religious rights. 

The famous sociologist MN Srinivas said the prohibition of alcohol was as much a Sanskritic act as cow slaughter. Incidentally, cow slaughter was discussed the same day as prohibition. In the same vein, the teetotalists’ arguments rested on Gandhi, Hindu scriptures, people’s wellbeing, and linking the origins of alcohol to the British. B.G. Kher, a Congress member from Bombay, argued that the drinking of liquor was one of the five deadly sins which the Smritis have laid down, and given that alcohol consumption was also sinful in Islam, there was no case against prohibition.

Seventy years on, the religious argument is mostly obsolete and the only argument or perhaps the only legitimate concern that potentially stands out is the wellbeing of the people. And to this end, the extent to which the State should intervene in social life should perhaps only be to encourage responsible drinking and nothing more. Total Prohibition is a futile solution that ignores the substratum of alcoholism which is irresponsible drinking. 

Alcohol consumption in India is an evolutionary journey and more and more Indians are taking to drinking. there is now across-the-board acceptance of drinking, with many festivals like Holi and Diwali celebrations being considered incomplete without it. India is one of the fastest-growing alcohol markets in the world. The rapid increase in urban population, sizable middle-class population with rising spending power, and a sound economy are certain significant reasons behind the increase in consumption of alcohol in India. Clearly, a balance is required between forcing people to stay “dry” and making it available at ridiculous discounts. 

Dr Shantanu Dutta , a former Air Force doctor is now serving in the NGO sector for the last few decades.

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