South Asia: India Supreme Court Says Time to Prohibit Alcohol 5/12/06

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India's Supreme Court has called on the federal and state governments to prohibit alcohol, citing the Indian constitution's Article 47, which directs the state to move to ban intoxicating drugs injurious to the health and which is the constitutional basis for India's drug laws. Although the court's comments are not binding and came in a ruling on an obscure case involving the payment of Bombay distillery fees, they have excited hostile reaction and appear destined to go nowhere.

"Article 47 of the constitution clearly casts a duty on the state at least to reduce the consumption of liquor in the state, gradually leading to prohibition itself," wrote Justices SB Sinha and PK Balasubramanyan. "It appears to be right to point out that the time has come for the states and the union government to seriously think of taking steps to achieve the goal set by Article 47 of the constitution."

Demon alcohol was rearing its ugly head, the justices wrote. "It is a notorious fact, of which we can take judicial notice, that more and more of the younger generation in this country is getting addicted to liquor. It has not only become a fashion to consume it but it has also become an obsession with very many. Surely, we do not need an indolent nation," they scolded.

"Why the state in the face of Article 47 of the constitution should encourage, that too practically unrestrictedly, the trade in liquor is something that is difficult to appreciate," the court asked. "The only excuse for the state for not following the mandate of Article 47 of the constitution is that huge revenue is generated by this trade and such revenue is being used for meeting the financial needs of the state."

The Supreme Court had its supporters. "The problems arising due to alcohol must be seriously addressed," S. Arul Rhaj, president of the Indian Alcohol Policy Alliance, told the Financial Express. "Prohibition must be strictly observed, especially in the case of driving, pregnancy, and the workplace," he said.

But as the justices noted, alcohol is big business in India and tax revenues from its sales pour into state government coffers. According to the Financial Express, liquor sales pumped more than $620 million into state coffers last year. "If prohibition is enforced, the state will incur annual losses that would be a huge dent," said Sharat Chauhan, Delhi state's commissioner of excise, entertainment and luxury taxes.

The Indian state's love-hate relationship was noted by the Times of India in an editorial that blasted the justices for their remarks. After snippily encouraging the court to keep its mouth shut on "moral positions" and stick to the narrow focus of the law, the Times cut to the meat of its opposition to alcohol prohibition. "On the issue of prohibition, the state has no business in taking a position on whether an individual drinks or not," the Times flatly editorialized. "If the state decrees that liquor be banned, that would be infringement of the fundamental rights of an individual to choose.

"The Indian state is caught in a bind over liquor," the Times continued. "On the one hand, it feels the need to pay lip service to the virtues of abstinence from alcohol. On the other, it wants to milk the liquor industry and tipplers of as much revenue as it can." Noting that alcohol has a long history in India, the newspaper suggested that "It is time government accepts that drinking is not a reprehensible act. Government must get rid of the notion that drinking by itself is objectionable even if the framers of the Constitution deemed it undesirable on moral grounds."

Alcohol prohibition is an affront to liberal values, the Times concluded. "Though prohibition might represent the letter of the constitution, it violates the constitution's spirit of liberalism and the individual's rights of choice -- which is the very basis of democracy."

If only we could see the New York Times or the Times of London making similar pronouncements about our own taboo drugs.

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Issue #435 -- 5/12/06

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