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Kolkata, India – After 18 years of prohibition, residents of the northeastern Indian state of Mizoram are now allowed to buy alcohol again.
In October, Home and Excise Minister R Lalzirliana said the state has so far issued permits to 56,631 people to buy booze from 22 retail shops in Mizoram.
He told the Mizoram state assembly this has brought in $2.94m in revenue for the state government during the eight months since the sale of liquor became legal this year.
“What a relief!” exclaimed businessman Biakchuunga, who like many people in the region goes by one name, as he sipped a glass of wine after a hard day’s work. “We were drinking all this for awhile, but we never got what we wanted – and often had to buy spurious liquor smuggled from neighbouring states.”
Prohibition just did not work, said Lalsawta, Mizoram’s finance minister. “We lost revenue and people drank bad liquor and fell sick.”
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Some argue that prohibition also drove many young people to use dangerous narcotics that are easily available in Mizoram, smuggled from neighbouring Myanmar.
“Many such drug addicts have died in recent months and it is tragic,” said Mary Ralte, a former teacher in Mizoram who now lives in New Delhi.
Prohibition ‘to ensure social peace’
The tiny, picturesque hill state of Mizoram, with a population of more than one million, is located on India’s far eastern border with Myanmar’s Chin state. The vast majority are Christians and the Presbyterian Church is the biggest denomination – about half of Mizoram residents are members.
Liquor is part of Mizo tribal traditions and zu, the local brew, was used for social ceremonies until prohibition was enforced by the Mizoram government – under heavy pressure from the powerful church.
“Alcoholism was rampant and ruining many families. Drunken brawls were frequent and the streets did not look safe after dark. So we pushed for prohibition to ensure social peace and harmony,” said Reverend Chuathuama of the Mizoram Presbyterian Synod, justifying the ban.
In 1997, Mizoram’s state government was ruled by a coalition headed by the Congress party, which passed the Mizoram Liquor (Total Prohibition) Act, banning the sale and purchase of all forms of liquor. Though the Congress party lost the next election, the victorious Mizo National Front (MNF) continued with the prohibition law under Chief Minister Zoramthanga, a former separatist rebel turned politician and a devout Christian.
But in 2013, the state government – once again led by the Congress party – amended the prohibition law to permit the sale of a fixed monthly quota of liquor to those holding permits. In January 2015, prohibition was finally lifted in Mizoram.
State residents need a government permit to buy liquor, though. It costs 500 Indian rupees ($7.60), and entitles its holder to buy up to six bottles of hard liquor and 10 bottles of wine and beer every month.
Although the church at first resisted the opening of liquor shops, it eventually relented. To appease the church, the government ensured the new law included stringent measures against drunk driving and drinking in public.
“The church realises it does not enjoy popular support on this issue. That is not to say our people wish to defy the church, but only that they want freedom of choice,” said David Thangliana, a leader in the state’s ruling Congress party.
Mizoram is heavily dependent on funding from the Indian federal government, and currently raises just four percent of its budget from its own resources.
“We are a small state desperate to raise our revenues. Sale of liquor helps us with that,” explained Lalzirliana. “Why should we miss out on revenue when this prohibition has clearly not worked?”
Prohibition has also not worked in the nearby states of Nagaland and Manipur, as liquor is smuggled in from neighbouring Assam.
In Nagaland, another Christian-dominated state, prohibition has remained in force since 1989, and the church and civil society groups continue to place strong pressure on the government to uphold the ban.
By contrast in Manipur, separatist rebels were the first to enforce the prohibition law, threatening wine shops to close or else face attacks. The rebels play the moral cop, periodically burning the drugs and liquor their armed members seize. The government, under rebel pressure, banned the sale of liquor in Manipur in 1991. But local brews such as Sekmai remained available.
In 2002, the government lifted the ban from five hill districts, where Manipuri separatists do not have much presence. However, in the rest of the state, prohibition remains in force.
The eastern Indian state of Tripura does not enforce prohibition, but its communist government refuses to issue licenses for bars, in order to cut down on public drinking.
Other states in eastern India allow the sale of liquor and vie with each other to lower taxes to promote sales. A significant portion of the liquor sold in states such as Assam and Meghalaya is smuggled into dry states like Nagaland and Manipur.
“If you have some states selling liquor and prohibition in others, it will just not work. Like water flows from high to low places, liquor will flow from where it is available to where it is not,” predicted former excise commissioner SN Jana.
Aside from Nagaland and parts of Manipur, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat is the only other Indian state that enforces prohibition. It also remains in force in the centrally administered island of Lakshadweep.
Meanwhile, the southern state of Kerala is currently trying to phase in a prohibition system.