The nanny state strikes again?
Goa will ban consumption of liquor in public places. "Sun sets on full moon beach parties as Goa cracks down on public drinking" says one headline.
Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar says "If someone wants to drink (liquor), they should drink inside and not in public places... Liquor shops will face music if people are found drinking in the open spaces near the shop."
It's not that the law does not make sense whether in Goa or anyone else. People who sit outside, drink, break bottles, create nuisance do not deserve that privilege ever. If you cannot do it responsibly, you don't get to do it at all.
But it still reveals our schizophrenic attitude towards alcohol in this country. On one hand we think of drinking as cool, a sign of modernity and a liberalised economy, a coming of age as a society, the idea that we are all adults now. On the other hand, state after state goes after drinking as the root of all evils, inching towards prohibition and banning its sale within 500m of highways.
Santosh Desai summed up our alcohol problem in his column City City Bang Bang thus: "The austere and somewhat puritanical ethos of the current government is at odds with the inroads that alcohol has made in middle class life."
Alcohol is far removed from its Vat 69 Bollywood days. It's much more in vogue as a social lubricant. Yet it's viewed with great nervousness and matrimonial ads still promise non-smoking, non-drinking grooms. Brides who drink and smoke would be ill-advised to advertise the fact on Shaadi.com. Binge drinking is an issue, one that we are loath to face. Instead of addressing why we binge drink, we just want to prohibit drinking altogether.
When two men were accused of raping a five-year-old girl with a bottle in Delhi in 2013, they admitted they had been drinking all day and watching porn on a cell phone. The gang that brutally attacked that young woman on a bus in Delhi, the case that became the Nirbhaya case, had also been drinking. Suzette Jordan in Kolkata was picked up from a bar after a few drinks. The Bengali television actor VIkram Chatterjee crashed his car on the road, killing his passenger Sonika Chauhan. He too had been drinking, whether enough to be DUI, is another issue. In the Chandigarh "stalking" case, CCTV footage showed accused Vikas Barala and his friend buying alcohol before trying to chase down Varnika Kundu at midnight though they refused to give blood and urine samples to the police.
It's silly to blame alcohol for a rape or a sexual harassment epidemic. That neatly shifts the blame from the perpetrators to a bottle.
But it shows over and over again that we are increasingly addicted to a culture of excess. We like to drink to get drunk. A Nimhans study found that while the standard international unit of alcohol is about 30 ml, in India the usual drink poured at home is somewhere between 60 ml and 270ml. "The idea of alcohol today is less about loosening a tightly held self, and more about hitting the highest notes of existence that one is capable of," writes Desai.
Unable to grapple with this core problem we tackle it with an array of punitive rules, often not well-thought out as we realise after the fact. The Nitish Kumar government's prohibition on alcohol sent the homeopathy industry in Bihar into a tailspin as their mother tinctures fell afoul of the law. The Supreme Court had to clarify that their 500m ban did not apply to city limits when hotels and clubs in the city suddenly found they were 500m from a highway. Dilip Datwani, president of the western India chapter of the Hotel and Restaurant Association said, "The clarification has brought a huge relief. The notification will provide relief to approximately 25,000 restaurants and 5,000 hotels." After a Park Street rape case the Bengal government suddenly decided last call had to be at 11 pm, but then faced with falling revenues not only relaxed that, it also cut down the list of dry days in the state. It declared that all bars in 3-star (and above) hotels and clubs can serve alcohol 365 days a year and the state only needs 4.5 dry days instead of 12. Now that's quite a U-turn from the nanny state that wanted last call by 11 pm.
What's worse is the war on booze does not stay limited to the drinker alone. In Bihar it was proposed that if one member of the household was found possessing alcohol others could be arrested and property confiscated. The presumption is that if one drinks, others must be aware of it and somehow pay for their sin. A habitual offender could be externed from his district for 2-6 months as if a change of place would fix a drinking problem.
But the problem with all these rules is the implementation. Will the toughs who provide muscle for a political party feel that Goa's public drinking laws apply to them? In Bengal in 2015, a 53-year-old weaver, Gurupada Biswas was dragged into a mango orchard and beaten to death by Christmas picnickers after he protested their drinking and brawling. Sourav Chowdhury, a college student was hacked to death and his body parts left scattered along a railway track because he protested against illegal liquor dens and gambling rackets in the area. A similar tragedy befell a schoolteacher Barun Biswas, who stepped up to protest crime, rapes, extortion in his locality. The criminal gangs allegedly enjoyed political patronage. Chowdhury's efforts led to five criminals getting life sentences, but one night he too was gunned down.
As long as miscreants feel they can operate with impunity because political parties need their muscle, laws like the ones in Goa will change little. If we crack down on drinking because we can't differentiate between drinking and binge drinking, we will never tackle the actual problem. The brunt of the laws will be felt by those who are not the real problem-makers. And these news laws will become just another way for police to harass ordinary people.