If Bihar's decision to ban alcohol had not seemed unwise in 2015, when the Nitish Kumar government in the state imposed it, the latest data on narcotics seizures should provide evidence that prohibition remains a rather flawed strategy to check growing alcoholism.
If Bihar’s decision to ban alcohol had not seemed unwise in 2015, when the Nitish Kumar government in the state imposed it, the latest data on narcotics seizures should provide evidence that prohibition remains a rather flawed strategy to check growing alcoholism. Prohibition brings with it increased dependence on substitute intoxicants. Bihar, as per a Times of India report, saw the highest increase in seizures of opium and hashish—a cannabis derivative—among all states between 2015 and 2017. The state also recorded the second-highest increase in ganja (cannabis leaves and buds) in the period. The state police seized 28,888 kg of illicit ganja in 2017, when in 2015 it had confiscated just 14.4 kg. Similarly, it seized 244 kg of hasish in 2017, while in 2015 there was no seizure of this psychotropic drug. While, in terms of quantity of ganja seized, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal followed Andhra Pradesh at the top, the rate of increase in volumes seized between 2015 and 2017 in the three states was much lower than Bihar’s. How pervasive Bihar’s problem of intoxicant substitution is evident from the fact that opium and heroin have also seen an explosion of seizure in the state. Bihar must draw the right lessons from Kerala’s experience, which also flirted with total prohibition just couple of years back. In the southern state, between 2008 and 2013—the years before the alcohol ban—cases registered under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act averaged 718 annually (with a high of 974 in 2013).
In 2014, when the state rolled out its alcohol ban under the previous government, cases registered under the NDPS Act shot up to 2,239. The 2015, 2016, and 2017 counts—the state lifted the alcohol ban in September 2017—are 4,103, 5,924 and 9,242, respectively. The ban also led to widespread bootlegging. Cases registered under the state Abkari Act that regulates taxation of manufacture or sale of alcohol climbed from 48,828 in 2013 to 65,046 in 2016, before easing to 59,514 (provisional data) in 2017. Apart from rising intoxicant substitution—which compounds the problem given how addiction functions—and bootlegging rackets, Bihar must also keep in mind the revenue implications of banning alcohol altogether. As this newspaper has pointed out before, at Rs 3,217 crore, the excise collections from alcohol were nearly a sixth of Bihar’s own tax revenue in FY15. While alcoholism is undoubtedly harmful, and not just from a health perspective, banning alcohol is just not the right solution. From imposing higher taxes on alcohol along with strict policing of inter-state borders to prevent bootlegging to a stronger push to de-addiction through opening more de-addiction centres and intensive awareness programmes, Bihar could have chosen to fight the evil of alcoholism.