After arrack went off the rack

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Sieged ArracksFather of our nation, Mahatma Gandhi, had no place for alcohol in his grand vision for India. In prompt compliance to this ‘vision’, his condemnation was written into the constitution. All the states, according to it, are supposed to be making it gradually more complicated to obtain alcohol until none is available. The motives of our founding fathers were commendable: in rural India booze is a dominant anaesthetic against the pains of destitution and yet it exacerbates that deprivation and ruins families! But there was never a pragmatic chance of eradicating the ‘demon drink’ completely. Many efforts were made, but with little success.

In 2007, during the reign of BJP-JD(S) coalition government in Karnataka, B S Yediyurappa (BSY), under the capacity of Dy. Chief Minister took a ‘very brave’ step of eradicating the arrack by banning it. Though it was a bloody blow to the arrack barons, it was, however, well received in the rural areas. The Stree Shakti Group, an NGO, and other Seers of Hindu Monasteries, who have been campaigning hard for the eradication hailed the former Dy. CM for his commendable measure. It can be called commendable because in Karnataka 50% of revenues from the liquor industry come from arrack alone. To put it in figures: of 3,414.94 Crores excise collections in 2005-06, arracks share was 1,565.40 crores.

The intention of ban was precisely to ensure that: habitual boozers won’t have their supplies and thus would be forced to give up. Alas, that never happened and is now proving unwise of BSY to have imagined that liquor consumption among the poor would come down because of the ban. What has really happened is that: Denying arrack has sent habitual drinkers towards brandy or illicit liquor – as arrack lobby had contended before the ban. And now the sale of Indian Made Liquor (IML) has doubled in the state since the ban, i.e. from July 1, 2007. The situation currently is such that Excise Department of the state is under heavy pressure to issue fresh licenses to CL2 (retail) and CL9 (pubs and bars) licenses. But given there is no government in the state and the elections on, they are just unable to do so.

This ban has now turned out to be a major election issue in Karnataka with the Congress and the JD(S) vowing to lift it if elected to power. Congress leader B Janardan Poojary and Central Administrative reforms commission Chairman M Veerappa Moily have gone on records to state that the party would revoke the ban if voted to power. However contradictory statements have been issued by other Congress leaders in unison – leading to perplexity within the party’s top cadres. What’s amazingly interesting to know, also, is that H D Kumaraswamy, one who had approved the ban as Chief Minister, has shifted in stance, and completely. This is because there are around 200,000 families that are largely dependent on arrack sales. Only BSY and his party, BJP, is still keen on sustaining the ban which according to him ‘was done to save poor families in the state.’ and not for vote bank politics.

But the ground reality is that the BSY’s measures have failed to save the poor families as they have now retorted to IML. So it’s a point to consider that, as to whether, would you ban also the IML and the other liquors in the ascending orders when you regain the power? Or are you going to revoke the ban to make the poor still suffer as the Congress and JD(S) candidates contend?

I wonder if it is viable to ban the Liquors in a world where the IPL Cricket Team of Bangalore itself is named after one of premier liquor brand. Would liquor barons like Vijay Mallya stay mute observer? For a baron who could buy a cricket team for crores and start a Formula One (F1) team for another millions, would not be hard to bribe a minister or two? He, in actual, can buy them out rightly!

History has testimonies in it to the fact that there was never a realistic chance of eradicating the demon drink entirely. They tried it in the United States, too, where total prohibition was enforced from 1920 for almost fourteen years. Gangsters like Al Capone and the mafia made multi-million dollar fortunes from the sale of bootleg liquor and organized crime. As every country has since discovered with drugs: make it illegal and a profit centre is born. An especially ugly feature of American prohibition was the extortion of hush-money from the owners of illegal bars, the speakeasies. There were more than one lakh of them in New York.

So, as you see, it’s not a great thing to revoke a ban as Congress is JD(S) seems to be doing. If BSY is voted back to power I am keen to learn as to how would he respond to this situation then?

Author is Editor-In-Chief of Aseemaa: Journal for National Resurgence | May 16, 2008 |

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