Mahatma Gandhi considered alcohol consumption a social evil. With this in mind, the directive principles of the Constitution proclaim that the State shall endeavour to prohibit the use of intoxicating drinks and drugs that are injurious to health except for medicinal purposes.

Nevertheless, most Indian States have seen fit to ignore this principle, since the revenue that comes from high excise and other taxes on alcohol is hard to ignore. But the concept is now back in the news after Kerala announced it would enforce prohibition in a phased manner. The prohibition, however, is to be selective. While Kerala proposes to close down bars, it plans to keep toddy shops selling home-made brews and five-star establishments open.

What is it? Prohibition is the legal act of prohibiting the manufacture, storage, transportation and sale of alcohol, including alcoholic beverages. The term is also used to refer to periods in the history of nations when they banned alcohol consumption, such as in the US during 1920-33. One-fourth of India’s population was under prohibition by 1954. But most States did not persist with the policy. Currently, prohibition in India exists in Gujarat and Nagaland, parts of Manipur as well as Lakshadweep. And now (once the courts rule on it) Kerala could be joining that list.

Why is it important? The calls for prohibition in Kerala stem from concerns about rising alcoholism in the State. Kerala has surpassed Punjab in terms of per capita annual alcohol consumption, at over 8 litres. But the historical experience with prohibition in the US as well as India tells us that prohibition could create a new set of problems for the State especially given its ‘exclusion’ clause. The effects of prohibition include large-scale sale of spurious as well as cheap liquor. It has also been known to lead to the rise of organised crime and bootlegging, around a black market for alcohol.

This may also call for larger police machinery to enforce prohibition in the state. Besides this, there is likely to be a loss of revenue for the State. For example, Kerala earned ₹5,539 crore from liquor sales in 2009-10, around 40 per cent of its total revenues. It’s unclear how this will be recouped, but it is likely to be through additional taxes on other commodities, such as fuel.

Why should I care? If you have ever been kept awake by drunken revelries at a neighbouring bar or have been a victim of drunken driving, you may be all for prohibition. But prohibition can also be viewed as an attempt at legislating morality. It can be argued that enforcement of prohibition transgresses the Government’s boundaries. After all, the Government’s role is to protect citizens and their property, not legislate what people are allowed to do for recreation. Tying up the police and courts with multitudes of cases against tipplers and bar owners seems counterproductive, considering the greater problems that are part of everyday society.

The bottomline Taking steps to address social problems such as alcoholism are welcome. But prohibition, especially if implemented in bits and pieces, may not serve its purpose.

The Government should endeavour to educate people about the perils of excess alcohol consumption. An outright ban impacts not only people with a drinking problem, but also those who see alcohol as a recreational beverage and social lubricant.