Prohibition: India's and America's shared lessons in fight against alcohol

This week's death toll of more than 100 in the Indian state of West Bengal point to India's well-intentioned motives but mixed record in restricting the sale of alcohol.

Bikas Das/AP
An Indian woman is comforted as she cries after hearing of her relative's death from drinking toxic alcohol outside a hospital in Diamond Harbor, near Kolkata, India, Thursday, Dec. 15. A tainted batch of bootleg liquor has killed scores and sent dozens more to the hospital in villages outside Kolkata, officials said.

When more than 100 Indians died after consuming illegal alcohol in the state of West Bengal, the first thing that the state governor promised to do was to crack down on the people who produce the liquor.

"I want to take strong action against those manufacturing and selling illegal liquor," West Bengal’s chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, said, according to Press Trust of India. "But this is a social problem also, and this has to be dealt with socially also along with action."

Seven suspected bootleggers have been arrested, but in a country where such illegal businesses number in the hundreds in most urban areas, this is at best a tentative step.

It’s an understandable suggestion for India, whose founding father, Mohandas Gandhi, considered alcohol to be “death to the soul.”

But given the history of prohibition in the United States, it’s clear that crackdowns on alcohol production and consumption can often be counterproductive. Indeed, a compelling case can be made that the same restrictive laws that India uses to control the supply and sale of alcohol almost inevitably created the conditions in which an illegal alcohol industry would thrive, and put thousands of lives at risk.

As an American reporter based in India in the early part of the last decade, I could see interesting parallels between the histories of India and the United States, at least when it came to alcohol.

As in India, the original motive for banning the sale of alcohol in the United States was humanitarian. Evangelical Christians, and a growing number of female activists like the hatchet-carrying Carrie Nation, worried – quite rightly, it turns out – that many families were being driven into poverty as working-class men spent their weekly paychecks at the pub and left their families to starve. Ban alcohol, the Prohibitionists argued, and you eliminate most of America’s social scourges.

But when Prohibition ruled the land, from 1920 to 1933, it didn’t stop people from drinking. It stopped them from drinking in public. Criminal syndicates smuggled alcohol into the country and sold it in speak-easy pubs, often under the winking eye of corrupt authorities. Those who lived away from cities, especially those who had access to grain, sugar, water, and a few copper kettles, simply made their own. American folk musicians wrote countless songs to deride Prohibition, but it was probably the realization of lost tax revenues that eventually caused the US Congress to repeal prohibition in 1933.

Even in Pakistan, a Muslim-majority nation carved out of India at the time of Independence from Britain in 1947, British-era rules allowing for the state control of alcohol sales have simply pushed many Pakistanis to purchase alcohol through private channels. In the capital city of Islamabad, for instance, all one needs to do to get a beer is to go to a Chinese restaurant and ask for “cold tea.” A teapot filled with beer will be brought to one’s table, along with a glass.

Like America’s prohibitionists, Indian leaders saw alcohol as a scourge, and Gandhi equated alcohol consumption with supporting the British Empire. Drawing parallels between the British sale of alcohol in India and the British subjugation of China through the opium trade, Gandhi urged Indians to kick the alcohol habit as a national – and religious – duty. In 1934, at a time when the British government controlled the sale of alcohol, and derived tax revenues from that sale, Gandhi wrote, “It is wrong and immoral for a nation to supply intoxicating liquor to those who are addicted to drink.”

Yet when India gained its independence, the Congress Party didn't ban the sale of alcohol. It decided to sell the alcohol itself, and promised eventual steps toward its eventual prohibition. Multiple efforts have been made to ban the sale altogether, and some states, such as Gujarat, are officially dry. Even in states where the sale of alcohol is allowed, consumers must purchase directly from the Indian government in musty state-run liquor stores.

And, as the West Bengal deaths show, there is no sign that the restriction of alcohol has any impact on the demand. Restriction simply shrinks the supply of alcohol, and sends consumers to other suppliers, and often those are people who don’t have the technical skill to ensure that their product doesn’t kill.

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