No law ever made by British, during their colonial rule of India, was as draconian as Nitish Kumar’s Bihar prohibition law. Kumar talks about upholding Gandhian principles. Non-violence is the most important of Gandhian principles. Non-violence essentially means not imposing anything on the other through the use of force. Gandhiji therefore was against use of any type of force against the British government. One can argue that Gandhi in his writings in the 1920s and 1930s argued for imposition of strict prohibition in India. But what Gandhi argued in 1920s cannot be imposed on Indians in 2017 in the name of Gandhism.
Gandhi also was against large scale industrialization and protection of small-scale industries. After independence the Indian government followed this economic policy of Gandhi. Hundreds of sectors were reserved for the small-scale industries. The result was that large scale of operations could not be achieved in these sectors. In the absence of large scale operations, efficiency and productivity could not be increased. Wages of those working in these sectors remained low because of low efficiency & productivity. It was in 1991 that India finally realized the huge negative impact of this Gandhian policy on the working class. The policy was ultimately given up by the Indian government. Since then the efficiency, productivity and wages of laborers employed in these sectors have steadily gone up.
Gandhi was against Gandhism
Gandhi is not alive today. If he were; he might have changed his views on many things, including prohibition. One of the things that make Gandhi great is his remarkable ability to change his positions and conclusions in the face of new facts. He was against creating an –ism in the form of Gandhism. He wrote, “There is no such thing as Gandhism. I am against creating any sect or creed in the name of Gandhism. The opinions that I have formed today are not final. I may change them tomorrow.”
A citizen should have the right to disagree with Gandhi
The great Bhimrao Ambedkar often disagreed with many views of Gandhi. Indian citizens should have the right and freedom to disagree with Gandhian principles. Those who follow Gandhian principles have no right to impose their views on those who disagree with Gandhian principles. Imposition is the essential tenet of non-violence, which was the most important belief of Gandhi. Gandhi is respected and admired world over not for his views on technology or prohibition. He is admired for his views on non-violence.
Kumar’s prohibition law is the most blatant use of force to impose prohibition of alcohol on the people of Bihar. If Kumar really believes in Gandhian values then he should immediately end prohibition of alcohol in Bihar and repeal the draconian law. If he feels that alcohol is not good for people of his state then he can follow a non-violent approach of trying to convince the alcohol drinkers of his state to give up alcohol. He can do this through extensive government sponsored social awareness campaigns about the harmful effects of alcohol. If people voluntarily give up alcohol (just like British voluntary gave up their rule because of Gandhi’s sustained non-violent movement) because of these campaigns, alcohol shops in the state would voluntarily shut down in the face of inadequate demand. That is the non-violent Gandhian way to go; Kumar sadly has opted for the violent, non-Gandhian, ISIS-like way to prohibit alcohol.
Economic consequences of prohibition
India’s unemployment rate is currently at 9.2% – among the highest in the world. According to data from India Spend, Bihar’s unemployment rate at 17.8%, is higher than the national average. The biggest challenge before the country is to provide employment to its young population. According to data from Ministry of Labor, 1 million people join India’s labor force every month. With increased automation and use of technology in manufacturing, job growth in manufacturing sector has gone down. In such a scenario the restaurant & bar industry is a big source of employment for India’s young population. This is a labor intensive sector where the use of human beings cannot easily be replaced by technology or robots.
Bihar and some other state governments are trying to curb this industry in the name of controlling (or prohibiting) consumption of alcohol. Bars are restaurants where alcohol is served. A major problem in India is that many, who are employed, are in low-paying jobs. Bars provide relatively better-paying jobs because those waiting on tables in these bars get supplementary income from the tips given by customers. So controlling the number of bars is equivalent to limiting some well-paying jobs for the poor.
The state government of Delhi abruptly stopped giving new licenses to bars in the excise year that just ended on 31st March, 2017. It gave the reason that there were enough bars and alcohol shops to meet the existing demand. This reason is baseless. There is no way the government can assess the demand for alcohol. This baseless reason implies that the Delhi government will give new licenses only when there is shortage of alcohol. Demand and supply assessments should be left to the forces of the market. If the supply of alcohol is more than its demand in Delhi then some bars and liquor shops will automatically shut down. This decision also benefits those bars and liquor shops that already have licenses. It reeks of bias towards existing players. It serves to reduce competition in the market and hurt consumers. A newly opened bar in a posh market of Delhi with millions in investment lies idle because the Delhi government has refused to give it license to serve alcohol. The newly hired employees have been laid off until the place manages to get a license.
Delhi government also said that another reason because of which it decided to not issue new licenses in the year is that many resident welfare associations in the city complained that liquor shops in their neighborhoods create law & order problem. There is no evidence that having a liquor shop or bar in a neighborhood creates any law & order problem. Some of the localities in Delhi with highest densities of liquor shops or bars (Khan Market, Defense Colony etc) are among the most peaceful neighborhoods of the city. What creates real law & order problem is when people are left unemployed. Unemployed people tend to resort to crimes like kidnapping, stealing etc. Crime went down in many parts of India as more jobs were created after the economic liberalization of 1991. Middle class people also do not want the poor to live near their homes. Just because a few resident welfare associations demand something, it cannot be valid reason to cater to that demand.
Constitution cannot be used as an excuse to impose blanket prohibitions and bans
Politicians take the excuse of directive principles of state policy given in the constitution when they want to impose prohibition. The Constitution clearly states that directive principles of state policy do not have mandatorily to be followed. The Constitution makers were of the view that the constitution needs to be amended with changing times and realities. That is why they gave the provision of constitutional amendment. If they did not want the constitution to be changed ever, they would not have given the provision of constitutional amendment.
Retired Supreme Court Judge, Justice Markandey Katju, argues that if the constitution makers wanted prohibition on alcohol, they would have prohibited alcohol right away in the Constitution. They would not have written in constitution, “That the state should endeavor to bring about prohibition of consumption of intoxicating drinks and drugs that are harmful to the health.” By using the term “endeavor” the Constitution makers imply that the State should not encourage consumption of intoxicating drinks, Katju says. By imposing heavy taxes on alcohol, Indian federal & state governments are already discouraging consumption of alcohol.
A government cannot take employment of people without first providing alternative and equally well-paying employment
The decision of Bihar government to prohibit alcohol has left thousands, who worked in liquor shops or bars, unemployed overnight. In a state where jobs are already so few in number, the government of Bihar should have first provided alternative and equally well-paying jobs before implementing the prohibition decision.
Right to livelihood is a part of right to live. Right to life is a fundamental right guaranteed in the constitution. The governments of Bihar, Delhi etc are violating a fundamental right in the name of upholding a directive principle of state policy. Recently, one of the grounds on which the Supreme Court turned down the dance bar ban in Mumbai is that it violated the right to livelihood of bar dancers. Politicians in India are showing a tendency of repeatedly violating the right to livelihood of citizens.
Setback to tourism
Tourism is an industry that generates maximum amount of employment. Limiting bars or prohibiting the consumption of alcohol has a very bad effect on tourism at a place. This can be seen from the case of Kerala. Kerala implemented a restricted prohibition policy in 2013. Since then growth rate in tourism has come down in each year. India should learn from Thailand. By giving a boost to tourism through liberal social policies, Thailand has managed to bring down its unemployment to less than .5% – among the lowest in the world.
World over economists are of the view that prohibiting intoxicants and narcotic substances leads to mafia and criminal gangs controlling the prohibited business. That is why the movement for legalizing narcotic substances is gaining ground. By prohibiting or curbing alcohol consumption, state governments in India are paving way for increased criminalization and future law & order problems.
Prohibition may be Nitish Kumar’s strategic masterstroke
Some may argue that Nitish Kumar’s intentions behind prohibition law are good. One can remind these people Joseph Schumpeter’s words: “The road to totalitarian tyranny is paved with good intentions.”
On a closer look, however, one can see that the intent behind Kumar’s new-found passion for prohibition may not be so altruistic after all. It may be more political. Nitish eagerly wants to become the Prime Minister of India. He tried for the PM post in 2014 but could not survive the Modi wave then. After Akhilesh Yadav’s loss to BJP in UP, Nitish expects to become the PM candidate of a coalition of all non-NDA parties in 2019; a coalition, like the one, in 2016 Bihar elections. Now Nitish may find it difficult to challenge Modi on development record. So his strategic gambit may be prohibition of alcohol.
After imposing prohibition in Bihar, he is asking BJP ruled states to impose prohibition. Two BJP CMs, Shivraj Singh and Raman Singh, have already fallen in Nitish’s trap. Nitish knows that the biggest supporter of BJP is the educated, urban middle class. This class wants no curtailment of individual freedom, like the freedom to decide what to drink or eat or wear. BJP will alienate its huge middle class vote base by taking a pro-prohibition. Most of the voters of this class will then get discouraged by BJP and they may not go out to vote in 2019 elections in full numbers. A major reason why BJP has done so well in the recent elections is that the urban middle class voter went out to vote for it in large numbers. Nitish wants to erode this advantage of BJP. The pro-prohibition stand will also slow down the expansion momentum in states of South and North-East that BJP has gained recently.
He aims to consolidate anti-BJP votes by making a grand coalition of opposition parties; and he wants to dissipate and divide BJP’s solid middle class vote base by making it take a pro- prohibition stand. By making prohibition an issue, Nitish will also take attention from all talk of economic development, in 2019. He has successfully managed to do so in Bihar. Nobody any more talks about development in Bihar; all talk is about prohibition.
In recent UP elections BJP alliance got 42% of the votes, SP 22% of the votes , BSP 22% and Congress 6% . The sum of the percentage of votes polled by SP, BSP and Congress is greater than that polled by BJP led NDA alliance in UP. Nitish’s winning formula is that with his grand alliance and BJP scaring away its middle class voters through prohibition, his becoming PM in 2019 looks almost a certainty.