Asia Life

The Dry Laws of India

Recent Features

Asia Life

The Dry Laws of India

Alcohol prohibition is on the rise in India.

The Dry Laws of India
Credit: Indian rum via Radiokafka /

Since April 1, 2016, Bihar, one of India’s most populous states, has begun to introduce rules forbidding the sale and production of liquor within its borders. Since India is a federation, its 29 states are free to follow their own policies in this regard. The “dry laws” are also in force in certain other major and minor states like Gujarat, Kerala or Nagaland, as well as some small areas. Prohibition has been also introduced (and later usually withdrawn) in other Indian states. Moreover, some political parties in India, such as DMK and AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, are promising the introduce a ban on alcohol.

Partially, the politicians’ “sudden” rediscovery of the alcohol problem is likely a recognition of social discontent with drinking, which in turn is growing with rising consumption. While many tend to idealize India as a teetotaler state (at least in comparison to European countries) the new data is alarming. The WHO report of 2014 claims that 11 percent Indians are “moderate to heavy drinkers” and that not much less than a third of the population partakes of alcohol regularly. The OECD report of 2015 claims that alcoholism in India grew by 55 percent between 1992 and 2012 (but of course the starting level was much lower than in most of Europe and therefore the rise, as shown in percentage, is higher).

It is interesting to see how much drinking in India is on the one hand socially censured and yet visible. Many people may claim not to partake of alcohol when in the presence of their superiors or parents, but may be found to do it freely with their colleagues (unlike, say, South Korea, an employee is expected not to drink in the presence of his/her boss, and vice versa). In some places, for example near alcohol shops in Delhi, crowds of customers are seen after sunset, apparently wishing to conclude the transaction as quickly as possible, as if hoping not to be recognized by a relative or co-worker.

The fight against liquor consumption in India has many aspects to it. One of the staunchest enemies of alcohol was Mahatma Gandhi, who abortively tried to bring about an all-India prohibition law in the early days of the Republic. For Gandhi, as for many social reformers, it was a necessary measure to mend the ills of the society. Even now the district of Wardha in the state of Maharashtra – where one of the Gandhian ashrams (spiritual and social centers) was located and where a Gandhian university currently exists – is a dry district, where even the possession of alcohol is an offence. A more recent case is of the Gandhian social activist Anna Hazare. Before he became leader of a powerful anti-corruption movement across the country, Hazare had focused on a particular village, Ralegaon Siddhi (also in Maharashtra), hoping to build a model Gandhian society. One of the rules he introduced was a complete ban on booze.

Politicians and social reformers can (and often are) supported by various religious traditions. Many Hindu, Islamic, Christian and Sikh organizations and religious people call for their followers to reject alcohol. The strength of Christian organizations in the northeastern state of Nagaland (which has an absolute majority of Christians) was one of the reasons why this region introduced prohibition in 1989. Hindu traditions are very complex and diverse, and there are also instances of certain temples (the Kal Bhairav temples, Kal Bhairav being an aspect of the god Shiva) where alcohol serves as an offering to the deity. These, however, are exceptions and Hinduism is often used in the fight against liquor. Alcohol consumption is usually banned in religious places of various persuasions, as it would affect their purity. For this reason, the sale of liquor in the Hindu holy city of Pushkar in Rajasthan is banned. (Not that you cannot buy it there if you really want to, as Polish tourists with which I used to go there demonstrated.)

Prohibition is both a sign of religious and political correctness. Enjoying a drink in public is forbidden across the country on national holidays: January 26 (Republic Day), August 15 (Independence Day) and October 2 (Gandhi’s birthday). Interestingly, election days are also dry. This reminds me of my country, Poland, where alcohol is readily obtained everywhere, save for the days when the Pope visits and shops are forced to stop selling liquor. The party or person that stands for prohibition (in India or elsewhere) claims a higher moral ground, as his opponent cannot oppose the law in the name of drinking (he can only do it in the name of liberty). This leads to a domino effect where the majority of law-makers suddenly claim to be supporting the anti-alcohol campaign. The ruling party of Tamil Nadu, AIADMK, did not introduce dry laws for five years and was even attacked by some for it but now, before the state elections, its leader, Jayalalitha, was suddenly found to be supporting prohibition. So is her main rival, the DMK party, although it had itself discontinued the liquor ban in the state back in 1971.

Support From Women

Prohibition is also supported by many women who tend to drink less and are too frequently victims of alcohol-driven domestic violence. This, by the way, is believed to be one of the reasons why the government of Bihar has now decided to introduce prohibition. The chief minister of Bihar, Nitish Kumar, introduced various female-friendly measures during his previous tenure. One of these was to save 50 percent of the panchayat (village body) seats for women. The fairer sex is now believed to be Kumar’s main constituency. During last year’s elections he also promised to introduce prohibition and now, while introducing it, he and his other cabinet members openly refer to women’s call for dry laws. Not surprisingly, the introduction of the liquor ban in Bihar happened just before the panchayat elections. Women are also comparatively active voters in India and so remain an important factor in the social and political fight against liquor consumption.

Interestingly, the political approaches to alcohol consumption also take into account social differences. For example, in the southern state of Kerala a partial ban on alcohol sale is in force: It permits the sale of liquor in five-star hotels as well as the selling of wine and beer. As for the hotels, the stated rationale was that a complete ban would scare away tourists, a vital source of income for an attractive region like Kerala. A dry law is also in force on Lakshadweep islands, save for the isle of Bangaram, where nobody lives but a bar there is eligible to sell booze. Prohibition, therefore, is thought to be essential to improving the conditions of Indian society, but not all parties consider its prudent to enforce the same laws on foreigners. Similarly, the BJP (Hindu nationalist party) government of Haryana has recently brought in a ban on cow slaughter and beef sale (as the cow is sacred for Hindus). At first, it was considering allowing foreigners to consume beef in high-end hotels, yet it finally decided not to exempt anybody. Arguably, however, tourism is not as important to Haryana as it is to Kerala. More precisely, however, allowing a drink a in five-star hotel only matters for the richest, be it outsiders or Indians. Similarly, a trademark wine will be most probably consumed by the better off while the poorer will partake of cheaper, often home-made, liquor.

I remember passing a trademark alcohol shop somewhere in northern India with an Indian colleague who observed “The board on the shop says it’s an English wine shop [angrezi wine ki dukaan]. Actually, both of these terms are incorrect. ‘English’ does not mean English here (but foreign). And ‘wine’ means ‘alcohol’ here, not ‘wine.’” It is commonly understood that angrezi sharab (“English liquor”) is a trademark, high-quality, imported and necessarily very expensive liquor. In contrast, desi sharab (“country liquor”) usually indicates cheaper and earthier fare, often illegally produced. The assumption is not always true: There are trademark alcohols produced in India as well, some with a tradition of their own (like the Goan wines), and there are also international companies that brew their alcohol in India (like the Okocim beer). Still, the angrezi/desi distinction points to a social divide between lower classes and the middle-to-upper classes, and it is assumed that only the latter are affluent enough to partake of foreign liquors. The new dry laws often focus on enforcing the ban among the lower classes. This is not legally equal but is explained by the fact that the drinking problem, as in other countries, affects the poorer sections more. The WHO report also pointed out that the level of alcohol consumption in India is adversely related to the household income while the OECD report claimed higher consumption in rural areas.

The points raised against prohibition laws are the same as elsewhere in the world: that they will be bypassed and will instead become an additional source of income criminal organizations while the state will lose huge amounts of revenue from excise (reportedly a major economic factor for now “dry” states like Kerala or Bihar). There is also an interesting aspect of government control. In some states, a partial ban on alcohol sale coincided with the state government monopolizing the remaining sale. In this case it may be asked to what extent the anti-prohibition crusade of certain politicians is sincere. Some may wish to regulate the liquor trade, not despite the fact that it may lead to their state losing vital profits but precisely because a partial ban coupled with state government regulation of the remaining trade may yield additional income.

But the biggest concern is that the controls will simply remain ineffective. I have already mentioned the case of Pushkar. Even in the Gandhian area of Wardha the issue of drinking was reported. Alcohol smugglers have their established routes and methods in India even without prohibition, due to the fact that the levels of excise are vastly different throughout the country. As with the failed U.S. experiment, nearly all Indian regions or states that had in the past introduced prohibition eventually decided to withdraw it. In another words, the dry laws of India may remain dry in a different sense.