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A worker preparing ingredients at a local brewery at Sekmai village

Lifting Prohibition May Not Change Drinking Habits, But No Need to Float Myths About Alcohol Benefits

Away from the semantics of whether this is a lifting of prohibition or relaxation, the truth is sale and consumption of alcohol has now been legalised in Manipur. Whether this is bad or good, is a matter of opinion, and also will depend on which vantage the inquirer takes. The fact also is, although alcoholic drinks had seen a ban in the state from 1991, there was never a time the state was free of alcohol or short of consumer or alcoholics. Because there was still a demand for the commodity despite the ban, a thriving black market was the inevitable result. This being what it is, maybe there will be no substantial change in alcohol consumption even though the ban has been lifted. If this postulate holds, it would just be a matter of what was happening in the black market being brought out into the open legalised market.

The question is, if this was all there was to take note of, why was the government resorting to creating so many myths about alcohol consumption in the state and elsewhere. First of these myths was that the lifting of prohibition was done with an aim to improve the health of those who consume it. This is laughable. Any doctor will vouch alcohol of any variety is poison though not so harmful if taken in moderate quantity. The government went ahead to further promote this myth by sending a fact finding team of three legislators to Goa, and the team dutifully reported back that though alcohol consumption is free and plenty in this tiny southern coastal state, nobody suffers from alcohol related diseases, in particular liver cirrhosis. It is unimaginable how the team came to this conclusion. The fact is, Goa which has a population half of Manipur, according to reports freely available sees 250 plus liver cirrhosis deaths a year on the average. The number of people suffering from the ailment but have avoided fatality, would obviously be multiple times more. From all its statements so far, the Manipur government does not even have the figure of cirrhosis related cases in the state to make a comparison with Goa, yet it claims Goa drinks more but suffers less, therefore it is the quality of liquor available in the two states which is making the difference. Are there tangible proofs to say anything for certain on the matter?

Another myth is that Manpur is losing out on excise revenue on liquor during the ban, and the claim is that the government will stand to gain about Rs. 600 crores a year once the ban is done away with. This claim probably is only partially true. The excise duty drain will obviously end, but can Manipur raise Rs. 600 crores from excise duty? Unless there is a campaign to popularise and promote alcohol consumption, this is unlikely. Neighbouring Meghalaya where there is no liquor prohibition, raises only about Rs. 250 crores from liquor excise annually even though the state’s population is marginally larger than Manipur’s. During the first COVID lockdown, a news report also said Meghalaya raised Rs. 6 crore excise duty on liquor. This is also despite the fact that local liquors which attract no excise duties, are not as popular in Meghalaya as in Manipur, therefore Indian Made Foreign Liquor, IMFL, market in the former would be bigger. IMFL are internationally standardised and popularised alcoholic beverages such as whiskey, brandy, rum, vodka etc., but made in India using the same patented formulae. In Manipur, even if IMFL, is sold openly, there would still be many who prefer the locally distilled brews, partly because of affordability and partly because consumers have acquired the taste for it, so the IMFL market is less likely to exceed that of Meghalaya. Revenue from liquor excise hence should be somewhat constrained within a ceiling similar or lower than Meghalaya. Indeed, if it was only about the money, ending Manipur’s systematic and rampant official corruption would ensure much more than Rs. 250 crores in the government coffer each year.

So where does the figure of Rs.600 crore claimed by the government estimate come from. Here enters another myth. The optimistic vision is that Manipur’s local brews will have a sizeable export market both inside and outside India and this export revenue will add to the excise revenue to raise the total earning to Rs. 600 crore and more. There are however two huge hurdles overlooked. First, Manipur’s local brews would have to meet all the criteria to be become eligible to be delisted as “local liquor”. Only when this has been achieved can it be retailed openly outside the state. Second, there has to be a market for it outside the state for successful export.

Everybody knows that the market is a strange animal. Here even the best products may not sell well as there are so many factors involved in any commodity doing well. This is especially so when it is a lifestyle product and in today’s world, liquor very much belong to this category. Hence, a whiskey drinker will not touch rum in a party unless there is no choice, and a wine aficionado would rather go without alcohol in a party if wine is not on offer. In such a market, what would be Manipur’s Asaba’s unique selling point, USP, that can create a niche for itself in this overcrowded, and conservative market of liquor. A tourist travelling to Goa may like to sample Feni in the first few days in Goa, but thereafter normally would want to return to his old brands. Likewise in Kathmandu, they would try out Rakshi (which incidentally is very similar to Manipur’s Asaba) but few or none will think of switching to the brand permanently. The roadblocks that would come up before any prospect of successful export of Manipur’s Asaba, however beautifully bottled, should already be clear.

The government ought also to have done a survey to establish which section of the population is hurt most by alcoholism, not necessarily only the extreme cases of liver cirrhosis, before claiming alcohol is not harmful, and lift the ban. Alcohol also can and have ruined many families especially in the lower income strata of society. Alcoholism’s scourge is indeed class sensitive, and that it hurts those in extreme frustrations and distress of unemployment and poverty most adversely. The richer classes normally are social drinkers, occasionally chilling it out with friends and there would be less cases of addiction amongst them. Drinking would also be a lesser cause for wrecked homes amongst those empowered by education, money and hope for the future. The opposite would be true of drinkers in the lower strata of society, many of whom are led to drinking to drown their sorrow and helplessness at watching their disappearing horizons of hope of meaningful jobs and livelihoods. Since this is so, they would be much more prone to addiction and addiction related ailments. In other words, just as drinking can be a lifestyle and fashion accessory for many, it can also be the last resort to escape from cruelty and humiliation of disempowering poverty for others. It is also in this sense, very much a social problem. If the government had a clearer picture of this, probably it would have been able to visualise better safeguards while lifting prohibition, instead of merely projecting it as a health and wealth bonanza it is generously offering the people.

There is another possible consequence. If IMFL prices become competitive, in the long run, rather than boost local communities which have traditionally produced and marketed rice based distilled brews Asaba such as at Sekmai, Phayeng, Andro, Leimaram and Rongmei villages, in the valley, and undistilled rice beer Atingba of many hues and flavours among many different hill communities, the lifting of prohibition could deplete this market considerably to ultimately kill it, rather than boost it as the government claims would be the case.

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