Prohibition, Indian-style

29 March 2017

The results are the same as in America: debt, impoverishment and organised crime.

The women whom we met in a rural village in Bihar, India had voted to ban alcohol in the last state's elections in November 2015. They hoped that the ban would stop their partners from spending the household money on liquor, abusing them, having accidents and getting into fights. But the ban has not stopped people in Bihar from drinking. At two o'clock in the afternoon we saw several drunken men on the street staring into empty space, or arguing with enemies real or imagined. The only difference: since prohibition, drinking alcohol has become more expensive, and it can get buyers and sellers arrested.

Before the ban a bottle of country liquor cost 20-40 rupees. Today a bottle of illegally produced country liquor costs 100-200 rupees. Daily wages are between 200-300 rupees - roughly the state minimum wage, which depends on the job. Alcohol now consumes a larger proportion of drinkers’ family incomes. ‘Men squander their money. They do not spend it for the family on food, or on educating their children,’ said one infuriated woman.

For the men, however, drinking is a coping mechanism. ‘I drink because it releases stress at the end of the day from my hard work, my abusive boss and my home situation. Drinking provides me peace of mind,’ says one. ‘It stops me from thinking about my life,’ says another. This doesn't sound too different from the reasons why people drink in other countries. In fact, rates of alcohol consumption in India are considerably lower than in the UK, where 79 per cent of the population drinks. Today alcohol is prohibited in an increasing number of states. During our meeting with the village men it was clear they were ashamed of their drinking; it took ten minutes before a few acknowledged it. Then we could finally ask how they cope with the price increase. Their answer: ‘Reducing costs by buying worse quality.’

Alcohol can render interactions with these men rather volatile. During group discussion a few drunk men entered, keen to voice their views. When an elderly gentleman asked one of them in an accusing tone why he drinks, the initial response was that he should mind his own business. Within minutes, the drunken fellow was threatening violence: ‘I would kill you right here, right now if I had a gun.’

Fortunately, when we gave the drunken visitors a piece of paper and a few pens to draw a map of the places where they buy their liquor in another room, they quickly became absorbed in the discussion about the task; afterwards, they left in peace and good cheer. Half an hour later, the man who had threatened his older compatriot with murder returned with an x-ray print and a report he had received from a doctor; he said he could not understand it, and asked us to help.

The village residents mostly belong to the lower castes. They do not have their own agricultural land; instead they work on richer people's farms and engage in other manual labour, such as construction work. Without a banking licence, lending money ‘as a matter of regular business’ is illegal according to the Bihar Money Lender's Act of 1974. But most villagers we meet have taken out high-interest loans from unlicensed moneylenders to pay for health emergencies and marriage dowries, or to pay bribes to avoid arrest for buying alcohol (often thousands of rupees at a time). The monthly interest is five to ten per cent. When they cannot pay back the loan, they offer their labour directly to the moneylender, or to an intermediary or local landlord who has an arrangement with the moneylender. In many cases this amounts to a system of bondage. If the adults cannot repay the loan with their own labour, they send their offspring. The children may end up working thousands of miles away in bangle factories in Delhi or tea shops in Assam.

Bondage and alcoholism existed in India before it started trying to ban liquor. But the bans, where they have been implemented, have made things worse. They pose a clear threat to efforts to eradicate bonded and child labour, as well as the state's other sustainable development goals. Banning alcohol has been just as unsuccessful in India as it was in other places. In the United States, prohibition of alcohol, which was in force from 1920 to 1933, was intended to reduce crime and corruption, cut public expenses on prisons and poorhouses, and improve health. Instead organised crime and social misery surged, tax income fell, and the whole experiment was eventually abandoned. The women in the village in Bihar are also slowly realising that prohibition has been counterproductive. ‘We never thought that nearly half of our household income would be spent on traditional liquor,’ says one. ‘Men are consuming this liquor and getting sicker. Can we lift this ban?’

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