India Looks to Prohibition

Prohibitionists Gaining Sway in India

By AMY LOUISE KAZMIN

DHARUHERA, India (UPI) — Two hours drive from New Delhi there is an
unassuming building in which the smell of beer permeates the air and the
clinking of glass bottles echoes throughout.

Machines fill bottle after bottle with freshly brewed Sandpiper beer,
cap them and seal them with gold foil. The bottles are then loaded into
cartons for shipment to 12 Indian states.

Inertia Industries, despite its lethargic name, has been one of the
fastest growing beer companies in India. In the four years since
Sandpiper hit the market, daily production has jumped from 72,000 bottles
to more than 300,000.

This year, Inertia planned to boost production further — to between
400, 000 to 500,000 bottles per day — at the recently expanded plant.
But then came the elections. Bansi Lal, the new chief minister of the
state of Haryana, promised in his campaign that he would make it illegal
to buy, sell, consume or produce alcohol in the farming state.

Lal won the election and carried out his promise within minutes of his
inauguration. The Sandpiper brewery now must close. Two other breweries
and seven distilleries are also shutting down.

Industry analysts say 20,000 jobs will be lost by the shutdown of the
10 Haryana plants. An additional 40,000 truckers, farmers and bottle
producers will also be affected. “It’s the will of the big politicians
that the factories get locked, ” said a despondent Kirpal Singh, a malt
machine operator at the Sandpiper brewery. “I’ll have to leave here in
search of other work.”

Officials estimate that prohibition will cost Haryana as much as
$142.8 million in annual revenues, for which Lal’s government has
attempted to compensate by raising taxes and fees for state-provided
services. Power tariffs have already gone up by 10 to 50 percent; bus
fares have jumped 25 percent, and the petrol sales tax is 3 percent
higher. New taxes have also been levied on businesses and self-employed
people.

Supporters of prohibition say that the cost, no matter how high, is
worth the price to save Indian families torn apart by the scourge of
alcoholism. Despite a cultural ideal that frowns on drinking, alcoholism
is a major problem at every level of Indian society. The consequences are
particularly severe among the working classes, where men often spend
large portions of their meager daily wages on booze while their families
go without adequate food or shelter.

“These drunkards started to be a law unto themselves,” said Arjun Das
Malik, commissioner of Haryana’s Rothak district. “They were a public
nuisance. The families suffered. The neighborhood people suffered. The
society was unable to control them.” Rakesh Yadav lives with her family
in a simple mud-house near the brewery. Her family owns trucks that used
to haul Sandpiper beer to other states. But Yadav, who has a baby
daughter, supports the ban on alcohol production nonetheless.

“A lot of women are fed up with the domestic violence and roughness
that goes along with drinking,” she said through a translator. Yadav’s
brother-in-law, Manoj Kumar, elaborated. Before prohibition, he said,
“men would come home drunk. It was common for them to break their wives
bones or bother the children.”

Now, “women are happier because their husbands are coming home on
time, eating and going to sleep at a decent hour. Things generally run
smoother.” Bansi Lal is not the first Indian politician to tap the
discontent of rural women upset over their husband’s drinking.

In 1993, cinema hero N.T. Rama Rao — who built a career playing Hindu
deities in religious movies — was elected chief minister of the state of
Andhara Pradesh after campaigning on a prohibition platform. Rama Rao
died last year, but Andhara Pradesh is still reeling from the loss of
$362 million in annual revenues since prohibition was imposed. Despite
new taxes on vehicles and consumer goods, the state’s budget deficit is
currently $242 million.

In April, the southern state of Kerala adopted a partial prohibition,
banning the traditional brew, arrack, which is made from the sap of palm
trees and was sold at tiny stalls in villages around the state.

The arrack ban was calculated to win support for Kerala’s former Chief
Minister M.K. Anthony among women, Muslims and the Christian clergy
before last spring’s vote. But Anthony’s Congress party lost to the
Communists, who challenged him to ban hard liquor if he was serious about
combating alcoholism. In the meantime, the arrack ban, which took affect
on April 1, will cost the state an estimated $10 million each year.

Despite the drastic economic implications, many observers predict
prohibition will spread as politicians embrace a cause that has clearly
proven to be a winner. “Everybody wants an election issue,” said Vijay
Kapoor, technical director of the Sandpiper brewery.

Some experts insist that a total ban on booze is far from the best way
to deal with alcoholism. They say prohibiting liquor consumption simply
creates networks of smugglers and home brewers who encourage people to
drink even more than when alcohol was legal.

In Haryana, a small state surrounded on four sides by “wet” states,
smuggling will be especially easy. “It is not going to work,” said
sociologist M.N. Panini, of the Jawaharlal Nehru University. “It will
have a boomerang effect. Instead of suppressing alcoholism, it will
encourage more alcoholism. It will create anarchy within the system.”

Panini also warned of increased police corruption, as officers accept
bribes in exchange for turning a blind eye from alcohol smuggling or
consumption. “This gives the police enormous powers,” Panini said. “They
have access to pry into anybody’s home to find out whether they possess
one or two bottles of rum.”

Instead of total prohibition, critics say Haryana should adopt a
pricing policy to encourage consumption of drinks like beer, which has a
lower alcohol content than the hard liquor now favored by the working
classes. Haryana also faces pressure from the state’s powerful hotel and
restaurant owners, who are clamoring for permission to serve drinks to
their customers. Without such a legal loophole, hotel owners say they
stand to lose millions of dollars of business each year, as
pleasure-seeking tourists seek wetter pastures.

Meanwhile, Inertia owner Sunil Tandon, who has $ 10 million invested
in the brewery, has filed a lawsuit saying his factory should be allowed
to produce beer for sale in other states. Tandon’s factory stands just 2
miles (4 kms) from Haryana’s border with neighboring Rajasthan, where
hard liquor and beer flow without any restrictions.

“If we are allowed to run the unit and sell beer to adjoining states,
why should the government object,” Tandon said. “It is totally
arbitrary.” Brewery worker Kirpal Singh has seen all this before. Singh,
from an impoverished Himalayan mountain village, was employed at a
brewery in Andhara Pradesh that was shut down when prohibition was
imposed there. He is bitter about the potential loss of a second job and
the $62 monthly salary with which he supports his wife and two children.
“The women who are having problems should have control over their
husbands,” Singh said. “They shouldn’t ask to shut down a whole factory
that affects all the employees and all their families.”

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