By the time the era of alcohol prohibition ended in the US in 1933, observers were calling it the “noble experiment”—a great exercise in morality and virtue that unfortunately didn’t succeed. But as the death toll from illicit liquor crossed 130 in Gujarat this weekend, it is worthwhile to remember that such noble experiments usually pave the road to suffering.
If there is one thing that usually vindicates the law of unintended consequences, it is the prohibition of liquor. The moment the state bans the substance, human nature being what it is, a black market comes into play to reap profits.
Instead of upholding virtue, this state action gives rise to an unvirtuous cycle of bootleggers or smugglers who are empowered and consumers who fall prey. Whatever protection the state could offer to consumers when it allowed liquor is taken away.
This isn’t advanced economics, but plain common sense, as experience in other democracies such as the US may show. Yet, India seems to have learnt nothing from the history of prohibition in Gujarat itself—the only state that currently prohibits liquor. In 1977, illicit liquor in Ahmedabad claimed 101 lives; in 1989, in Vadodara, the toll was as high as 132. Following this, an inquiry commission headed by justice A.A. Dave asked the government to review the prohibition policy. As The Indian Express reported, the government rejected the commission’s recommendation.
Such moral grandstanding seems pervasive. Other states such as Andhra Pradesh and Haryana have briefly attempted this noble experiment, but failed. Earlier this year, then health minister A. Ramadoss suggested a national alcohol policy, urging prohibition. Even now in Gujarat, both the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is in power, and the Congress party agree with prohibition in the name of Gujarat’s son of the soil, M.K. Gandhi.
Politicians are now blaming everything from police corruption to lax laws. The simple solution at this point would be for Gujarat to abolish prohibition: This will enfeeble the black market, allow the government to check what’s sold and bring in Rs3,000 crore worth of tax revenue. But without the necessary political will, Gujarat’s noble experiment will remain an ignoble reality.
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