Published On:22 December 2011
Posted by Indian Muslim Observer

Remedy of hooch tragedy: blame game and prohibition?

By Sukant Khurana and Brooks Robinson

Bengal seems to have tragedy after tragedy and Mamta has only one answer: blame the previous government. She may not have started the fire, but she certainly continues to fuel it. She may have been a verbal tigress initially, but when it came to the actual managing of the state of affairs, her stint as Chief minister has been marred with repeated failures. No, we are not trying to defend CPM or any political party in India, but only asking the political class to own up to its mistakes Almost all politicians in India shelter and help the corrupt state apparatus for that is the machine that feeds them back the cash and muscle power necessary to get elected. Who in Indian electoral politics rises above this power and money nexus? This hooch tragedy once again exposes politician’s inability to change the game in any significant way. What we are afraid of is that the situation may go from being bad to worse, by following the current prohibition example of Gujrat, Manipur, Tripura and Nagaland.

India is full of repeated attempts to implement alcohol prohibition. Almost always the prohibition is lifted due to its counter-effective nature but somehow the simpleminded tendency to invoke it at time of crises always persists. Gujrat, the largest state to have prohibition, is one of the topmost states for alcohol addiction and abuse, despite, or shall we say due, to prohibition. In a single, devastating incident in 2009, 136 people died in one day in Gujrat due to the consumption of illicit alcohol. Andhra and Haryana have also gone dry in the past just to roll back the decision. In dry states, the wealthy turn to smuggled foreign alcohol that is not good for domestic industry, trade balance, and foreign reserves. The poor population on the other hand, turns to the shoddy and unsafe alcohol provided by the bootleggers. One forgets that crime skyrocketed in USA, during their prohibition era. Similarly, in India, Morarji Desai's decision to ban alcohol in the Bombay Presidency in the early 50s was the chief cause of the growth of the smuggling syndicate and the likes of Haji Mastan, Vardarajan, and Karim Lala etc., who are the founding fathers of the Mumbai underworld.

Evidence based policy-making needs to replace the simple-minded solutions that have plagued us in the past. We need to ask ourselves what really drives people to the illicit liquor. The problem for poor people is two fold: the current drinking habits mixed with the current status of alcohol availability. Social taboos against moderate social drinking are driving people to drink in isolation and in excess.

In Mediterranean European countries where alcohol is consumed in moderation and within families, there are very few cases of alcohol related crimes. No, we are not saying that alcohol does not cause problems. In fact, when consumed in excess it results in people loosing many inhibitions. Whether alcohol causes crimes or acts as a license for committing a pre-conceived crime is a different question but the bottom line is that too much alcohol brings problems. The poor are also driven to temporarily drown their problems in alcohol more so than the privileged, further losing money and status and thus exacerbating their already disenfranchised status. The social displacement of workingmen away from their families due to ever increasingly inequitable society of India is also a primary cause of the absence of true family bonds that work to curtail drinking in excess.

Alcohol and other drug-related troubles seem to be excessively high in societies where gender parity is low. When it comes to gender equality, India is consistently ranked as one of the worst countries in the world. Moderate alcohol can be moderately beneficial to grown-ups (with the exception of pregnant women or those with kidney and liver problems). Thus, those who already drink should be guided to healthy habits instead of having the more difficult and socially ineffective message of abstinence be forced upon them. No, we are not suggesting that anyone who does not drink should start, we are promoting healthy habits for those who already drink.

Another pressing matter is that consuming alcohol has different impact on different segments of the society. It is clear that the financial impact of alcohol consumption will be very different on different sections of society. This brings us to the second dimension of alcohol availability. To counter the economic impact of alcohol availability on the poor, the direct and at times indirect policy of both the central and state governments has been to increase the price of legal alcohol. This is done with the stated intent of preventing alcoholism in poor populations, while making alcohol available to the class that can afford it. This is mainly done by levying heavy taxes but also by making molasses, an ingredient in many hard types of liquor, exorbitantly more expensive than its free market price. These measures drive the poor toward illicit hooch, which is available anywhere across the country. With decades of disastrous social planning, the traditional alcohol making communities have been driven to other trades – mostly cheap labor away from their native land, so much so that one can find nausadar-spiked hooch much more easily in the land of mahua in tribal regions that have been making the mahua (alcoholic beverage from flower extracts) for millennia or hooch in regions that used to traditionally make rice wine. What is left behind is the nexus consisting of the criminal politician, police and local strong men that run the production of alcohol in all Indian states, including the dry ones.

This is an easy breeding ground for contaminated alcohol. With unscrupulous and careless businessmen in control of the alcohol trade, even methanol- contaminated batches of alcohol are allowed into circulation and the poor people have to pay the price with their lives. The poisonous methanol that causes the effects of alcohol poisoning is formed when the temperature of alcohol distillation is not controlled correctly and the high temperatures cause breakdown methanol to be formed.

People have to move away from hooch which frequently has added distilled alcohol and ammonium salts and adopt a healthy culture of socially consuming drinks with low and safe alcohol content. A rollback of all policies that make legal and safe liquor out of the reach of common folks is desperately needed.

Professing prohibition is like preaching abstinence to control AIDS. It does not work. One needs to evolve strategies and policies based on evidence. Exorbitant prices only drive poor to get their drinks at shoddy places. A police force reform is also needed. Despite feeling sick, victims in the recent tragedy did not report to hospital for the fear of police questioning. It is not just the Bengal police, but men in uniform across board that are known for their corruption, heavy handedness to the poor and being in cahoots with criminals. So someone should convey to the politicians in general that there exists no short cut to success. Prohibition has been a failure across the globe. Things that will work however, are gender and general socio-economic parity, education and overall development.

[Dr. Sukant Khurana, Ph. D., is a New York based scientist of Indian origin who is working on both basic and applied side of many health issues. In collaboration with Brooks Robinson, a neuroscientist working on addiction, learning and memory, Dr. Khurana is working on a book on alcohol issues of India. Their public outreach writings relevant to alcoholism are available at https://sites.google.com/site/sukantkhurana2/ and https://sites.google.com/site/sukantkhurana/alcoholism-writing-of-sukant]

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Posted by Indian Muslim Observer on December 22, 2011. Filed under , , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Feel free to leave a response

By Indian Muslim Observer on December 22, 2011. Filed under , , , , . Follow any responses to the RSS 2.0. Leave a response

3 comments for "Remedy of hooch tragedy: blame game and prohibition?"

  1. Really thought provoking. I hope some politicians start thinking like the authors.

  2. Insightful!

  3. Very balanced and objective analysis.

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