From Al Capone to Gender Justice

Andhra Pradesh has decided to end prohibition. There has been a cry of protest from a spectrum of people ranging from moralists to feminists. Others say attempts at prohibition the world over have only encouraged organised crime, illicit distillation, deaths from spurious liquor, and widespread defiance of the law. Where does the truth lie?

In my youth, I opposed prohibition as an intrusion by moralisers on the liberty of individuals. As long as I inflict no harm on others, I argued, nobody has the right to decide whether I can drink or not. You can imprison me for drunken behaviour that harms others, but not stop me from drinking. Most people drink without becoming drunk, so why ban harm-free pleasure along with the harmful kind? Liberty dictates that a person should have the freedom to choose, even if he chooses dangerous routes. After all, I argued, mountaineering and car racing are more risky than drinking, yet nobody suggests they should be banned.

I now know the logic of my youth was flawed. I was wrong in assuming that a man’s drinking habits affect only himself. In fact it affects his whole family, and all members of a family do not have equal decision-making power. A man typically controls the family’s entire purse. And in far too many rural families, men divert scarce cash to liquor, depriving their womenfolk and children of money of better food, education or anything else. Many sink into debt, dragging their families down with them. So prohibition is not just a morality-versus-liberty issue, it also a civil rights issue for women and children. What was originally seen as a family matter has now been taken into the public domain, where indeed it has a place. If women and children cannot get justice within the family, they have a right to seek it outside.

This explains the new force behind prohibition. Originally, it was inspired mainly by Gandhi an moralising, and hence took root only in Gujarat, home state of the Mahatma. But more recently rural women’s organisations have started agitating for prohibition, smashing up rural stills and picketing liquor vends. The courageous village women who had defied social taboos and taken on men folk and the liquor lobby in Haryana and Andhra Pradesh deserve high praise. In response to their outcry, these state governments have imposed prohibition. The aim is not to improve morality so much as to empower women and mitigate the impact of alcoholism on families.

However, prohibition can have social ill effects no less than alcoholism. Al Capone was the result in the USA. The beneficiaries of prohibition in Andhra Pradesh are not just rural women but liquor smugglers, illicit distillers, crooked policemen, crooked politicians, and plain crooks. Liquor availability may have decreased but not by all that much, though the price is higher (and this, paradoxically, could in some cases mean an even larger diversion of family money into liquor).

The state government has lost enormous revenues because of prohibition. So it has much less money for urgent social spending and rural development, which have suffered. To this extent, prohibition itself can be viewed as a social evil. Moralists will disagree, saying state governments should be able to raise compensating revenue from other sources. Maybe so in an ideal world, but in proactive prohibition does create a social spending crisis.

Besides, prohibition can drive away industry, tourism and other legitimate avenues of employment and prosperity. Haryana’s once-flourishing tourism industry is in the doldrums since hotels cannot serve liquor. Approved foreign investments are not getting converted into actual projects in Andhra Pradesh, and one reason (according to some studies) is that the companies in question doubt if they can get enough quality managers to come to such a state. Sanjay Lalbhai of the Arvind Mills group has long complained that same problem affects industry in Ahmedabad. Good managers are scarce and want a club-culture, a place they can go to for a drink in the evening. They do not wish to move to a state where they; maybe jailed for sharing a beer with a friend.

Here, then, lies the dilemma. On the one hand prohibition empowers women and saves rural families from ruin. On the other hand, it results in less education, health, tourism, industry and employment.

Is it possible to arrive at a golden mean, which achieves some social gains without too great a social loss? One middle path, proposed by Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, is to ban arrack (cheap country liquor drunk by the poor) but permit sales of what is grandly called Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) –that is, whisky, rum and other non-desi spirits. These are too costly to be purchased by the rural poor. Yet their sale in urban centres will bring back industry and tourism, and provide enough revenue to revive government spending on education and rural development.

This looks a reasonable compromise. It is by no means perfect. Smuggled liquor and illicit hooch will still be available in rural areas. The mafia will still operate. Yet the focus of profitability will move to the legal urban market. Man, though by no means all, rural families will be saved from the ravages of alcoholism.

Some further steps are necessary. NGOs need to try and increase awareness of the evils of alcoholism, and help organise women against it. Women’s organisations must be encouraged to keep close watch on illicit liquor, and not leave the task to venal, inefficient policemen. Elected women in panchayats need to assert themselves in this matter. Chief ministers should leave standing instructions at police thanas to give priority to complaints from womens’ organisations. Liquor shops should be restricted to urban areas-the inconvenience and cost of travelling from a village to a town to buy; liquor will discourage the practice without making it illegal.

More fundamentally, we must remember that a gender problem (which is what drinking is in poor rural families) requires social solutions that go far beyond liquor sales. The status of women must be raised in society. Female education is a must, since educated women are more likely to resist male dominance of spending decisions.

Micro-credit groups can give women access to capital for income-earning activities, giving them financial independence. But income opportunities are not enough. We also need a society where a woman can leave a drunken husband with honour and be protected by society (instead of being preyed on, as is the case in rural India today). That job cannot be done by prohibition, or any other set of laws. It has to be done by society itself.

What do you think?