Feasibility of Indian state's alcohol ban questioned

History shows total prohibition has never been successful anywhere in the world, says priest
Feasibility of Indian state's alcohol ban questioned

An Indian employee writes down stock in a liquor store in Hyderabad in this February 2013 photo. The Indian state of Bihar has recently announced a full ban on the production and sale of alcohol. (Photo by AFP)

Some church members are questioning the wisdom of a total alcohol ban in the Indian state of Bihar especially when liquor has been an important means for poorer communities to make a living.

The production and sale of alcohol was banned from April 5 onwards with Chief Minister Nitish Kumar saying the move was the start of "a new social revolution" in the impoverished state.

The new prohibition law also imposes punishment, even up to life imprisonment and the death penalty for serious violations.

Kumar's government came to power for a third five-year term last year and during his electioneering promised women that he would make Bihar a "dry" state.

Hundreds of women's groups across the state, most of them organized under church organizations, had been agitating for a ban on alcohol, saying it was the root cause of poverty, domestic violence and harassment of women in families.

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The prohibition is expected to cost the state US$752 million in lost tax revenue. "We do not need any revenue at the cost of people's lives," Kumar told media.

"We'll make up for the loss by other means. Let the people of Bihar utilize their money now for better education, health and a better life standard," he said.

Some commentators say the chief minister was swayed by the huge support he received from Bihar's women for banning liquor.

One Catholic bishop is among many who believe the ban was made in haste and suffers from a lack of planning.

"In principle it is a very positive step but the quick blanket ban on liquor without any alternative is set to remove the cheer from the lives of some sections, especially the poor," says Bishop Cajetan Francis Osta of Muzaffarpur.

A ban throughout the state is a "despotic move" says Jesuit Father Philip Manthara.

"What about freedom to drink in a responsible way? History shows that total bans have never been successful anywhere in the world," he says.

The priest says that the state needs "a comprehensive education plan that will educate people about the evils of drinking and motivate them to give up drinking. In case of serious cases, then treat them."

For more than two decades Father Manthara has worked for the empowerment of the marginalized Musahar community where brewing liquor is the chief occupation.

"The Musahars are the worst affected by the ban," said Father Manthara.

Sister Sudha Varghese, who works with the Musahars in the Danapur area, said that the ban caught the community off guard.

"The prohibition is surely a bold step but Musahars are in a precarious state, without any viable economic alternative," said Sister Varghese.

"Why can't the government be a little friendly and humane by starting some schemes for their livelihood? After all they are not the enemies of the state," said the nun.

This is Bihar's second attempt at banning liquor. In 1979 the then-chief minister Karpoori Thakur made it a dry state but his successor Ram Sundar lifted the ban in the wake of widespread corruption and bootlegging.

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