Nitish Kumar, newly re-elected chief minister of Bihar, is making a mistake. Prohibition is not a workable idea.

Don’t get me wrong. Alcoholism causes real damage to households in developing countries, rich and poor. Alcohol is a scourge that endangers lives, jeopardizes livelihoods, impacts upon the respect that women receive in homes, encourages crime, reduces disposable income and increases the disease burden in society. Alcohol is linked with substance dependence, liver cirrhosis, cancer, neuropsychiatric conditions and accidental death.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), alcohol-related harm is determined, apart from environmental factors, by three related dimensions of drinking: the volume of alcohol, the pattern of drinking and the quality of alcohol consumed. The harmful effect of alcohol consumption comes about from heavy episodic drinking (HED). The WHO defines HED as consumption of 60 or more grams of pure alcohol (six+ standard drinks in most countries) on at least one single monthly occasion. HED is associated with detrimental consequences even if the average level of alcohol consumption of the person concerned is relatively low.

The average per capita level of alcohol consumption in India is indeed low: by conventional measurement, it is an annual 4.3 litres of pure alcohol per person above 15 years. In comparison, the global average is 6.2 litres. However, the per capita consumption for Indian males is 8 litres. The large number of Indian women who are non-drinkers— abstainers in public health jargon—brings down this average substantially. On a base of drinkers, Indian males consume 32 litres per capita per year versus 18 litres for the UK and the US.

The National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) provides some comparison of states in India. Andhra Pradesh is India’s biggest drinking state with Bihar in the top five, if you include toddy, country liquor and so-called Indian-made foreign liquor (IMFL). The average villager drinks about 11.4 litres in a year. Bihar’s consumption is about two times that rural average. India and Bihar may well have a problem.

Yet, prohibition is not a good idea. This is because prohibition does not work in leaky societies and using policy and police to protect a large group of people from themselves is a paternalistic prescription that is doomed to failure. The consequences of this failure will likely be worse than the issue it is trying to address.

Prohibition has been tried and has failed in many countries. From 1920 to 1933, driven by a Calvinist ethic and the temperance movement, the US imposed a constitutional ban on the sale, production, importation and transportation of alcoholic beverages (though not on consumption). Contrary to expectations, during these years organized crime increased manifold and thefts, burglaries, assault and homicides climbed sharply. The UK has never tried countrywide prohibition. Canada, Mexico, Finland, Norway and Russia tried and repealed prohibition over a hundred years ago. No major non-Islamic country today has prohibition.

The framers of the Indian Constitution included Article 47 in the Directive Principles of State Policy that proclaimed, “The state shall endeavour to bring about prohibition of the use except for medicinal purposes of intoxicating drinks and of drugs which are injurious to health." Madras and Bombay states implemented a prohibition from 1948 to 1950. Today, prohibition—a state subject—exists in Gujarat, Nagaland, and parts of Manipur. Declaring it a failure, Mizoram last year lifted a total ban on alcohol that had been in place for 18 years. Egged on by religious minorities, Kerala last year announced a phased implementation of prohibition. Bihar just announced its implementation from next fiscal year on the back of Kumar’s election promise.

For Bihar, prohibition will not achieve its objectives and will be a long and costly detour. It will endanger the very people it is trying to protect. Kumar should instead promulgate an alcohol policy. An explicit goal of this policy should be to limit the harmful effects of alcohol consumption. Driving supply underground will seriously compromise this goal. Additionally, it will become a major time and resources drain to stop newly emergent smuggling routes, organized crime syndicates and illicit liquor shops. The gain that Bihar has made over the past 10 years in improving the general law and order situation stands at risk. It unnecessarily criminalizes large sections of the consuming public.

Better to set aside a portion of the excise taxes generated to specifically promote the mitigation of harmful effects. The alcohol policy should directly attack the pattern of use through education, awareness and help groups. It should specifically attempt to reduce the incidence of HED. Government hospitals should have special alcoholism-related counselling, funded directly from alcohol taxes. Enforcement resources should go towards significantly reducing under-age drinking, drunk driving and shutting down cottage production of liquor.

Nitish Kumar can show the way for an effective new alcohol policy in India that targets the harmful effects of alcohol. Prohibition is yesterday’s non-solution.

P.S. “I am like any other man, all I do is supply a demand," said Al Capone, prohibition-era gangster in the US.

Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs.

Comments are welcome at

narayan@livemint.com. To read Narayan Ramachandran’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/avisiblehand

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