Two men entered the bar, one carrying a movie camera with a tripod. They made straight for the counter, where the bartender was pouring out drinks. There was a lull in the buzz of conversation, as curious eyes followed their progress to the counter. It was unusual for a TV crew to visit a bar — on duty, equipped with the tools of their trade — but these were unusual days in Kerala. For the government had suddenly announced its intention to close down all the bars in the state as the first step to imposing prohibition. The bar owners were fighting tooth and nail, dragging the government to the High Court, then to the Supreme Court — but it looks as though come the end of this month, all the bars in the state (except the ones in five star hotels and private clubs) would have to be wound up.There is still a case pending in the High Court, but it seems unlikely that the court will rule against the government’s prerogative to implement the liquor policy of its choice. And this explained the presence of the TV crew in the bar. They had come to interview the bar employees and the customers, in search of a few sound bytes to embellish their coverage of the issue.
The man sitting opposite me turned to follow the TV crew with his eyes. One of them began setting up his camera near the bar counter, while his colleague spoke to the bartender. The conversational buzz resumed. My drinking companion (I’ll call him that because we shared a table, but I didn’t know him from Adam) returned to his drink, sipped savagely, and growled, “The bar shouldn’t allow it. We have a right to privacy.” He looked distinctly uncomfortable. I asked him what was the problem if they filmed inside the bar — though I knew what his problem was. He said he didn’t want his wife to see him drinking in the bar. Another man standing next to our table complained that he was stuck — he’d left his drink on the counter to have a smoke, and now couldn’t retrieve it. Why not? I asked innocently. “Oh,” he replied, “I don’t want my picture to be splashed on TV. I have an image to keep up in society.” The TV crew had finished with the barman at the counter and came towards our table. The man sitting opposite me got up hurriedly and disappeared into the smoking room, followed by the man who had an image to keep up in society.
The TV crew paused on their way out and asked the drinkers if anyone wanted to speak up about the impending prohibition. Nobody spoke. Then, unexpectedly, one man raised his hand. Yes, he did have something to say, he announced, but he didn’t want his picture to be broadcast. Could they use just his voice? Sure, they could. And so the camera was set up near the table, and the TV journalist sat opposite the drinker, and a small crowd gathered around them (I’ve blurred the photo deliberately). The interviewee’s message was that he used to visit this bar once a week in the company of a friend, and they spent an hour or so chatting over a couple of drinks. What right did the state have to rob him of this happiness?
Prohibition in Kerala is almost an oxymoron, for this tiny state boasts the highest per capita liquor consumption in the country. On state highways, bar signboards greet the traveler almost with the monotonous regularity of milestones. Bars open in the mornings and are full by noon. Drunks can sometimes be seen lying senseless on the streets in Cochin. It is certain that alcoholism is a serious problem, and some people drink more than they ought to. But, for God’s sake, prohibition?? And it’s not as though the government conducted a study of the problem and arrived at this decision after lengthy and careful deliberation. No, this was the chief minister’s brainwave, and his only motive (whatever homilies he mouths) is to checkmate a political rival in his own party who had become the virtual leader of the anti-liquor forces in the state. Underlying this decision is also a cunning electoral calculation: almost all the women in the state support prohibition. And an array of other forces support prohibition, ranging from religious groups to temperance movements. Drinkers are hopelessly outnumbered as a vote bloc.
It’s beyond belief that an entire industry, set up and nurtured and taxed by the government for decades, can be shut down like this — arbitrarily, with scant prior notice and without any planning or discussion. What happens to those who depend on jobs in this industry? How will the government, which is chronically short of funds, make good the loss in revenue? They will have to raise taxes and, indeed, have already done so. The government has also ignored the empirical evidence that nowhere in the world has prohibition worked. On the contrary, societal indicators like alcohol consumption and crime increase following prohibition, as the following study of the US experience with prohibition shows: Alcohol Prohibition Was a Failure One sentence from this study is worth quoting: “In the aftermath of Prohibition, economist Ludwig von Mises wrote, ‘Once the principle is admitted that it is the duty of government to protect the individual against his own foolishness, no serious objections can be advanced against further encroachments.'”
True! Why should the majority of moderate drinkers suffer because a minority abuses alcohol? Among the supporters of prohibition, I suspect there are holier-than-thou politicians and society leaders who drink in secret, those who are jealous at the happiness that alcohol brings drinkers, those who are blinded by religious fundamentalism, prudes, the merely misguided — and last but not least, those who abused alcohol in the past, suffered as a consequence, subsequently reformed, and now oppose alcohol (“I can’t hold my drink, and so I will deprive those who do drink sensibly of the pleasure of drinking,” they seem to be saying). Indeed, I’ve heard from more than one source that one of the leading lights in the present crusade allegedly belongs to the latter category. The only person more dangerous than the alcoholic is the reformed alcoholic, who burns with the fanatical fire of the new convert. We have seen what one such person did to Iraq; he has long since left the presidency and is enjoying his retirement, but we have to live with the fallout of his self-serving interventions.
If the government was sincere about reducing alcohol consumption in the state, there are several measures it could’ve tried that are less drastic and short-sighted than prohibition. They could’ve mandated that bars shall open only at noon or in the evening. They could’ve instructed their departments of social welfare to identify alcoholics and counsel them; they could’ve pressurized religious and community organizations to identify alcoholics in their communities and counsel them; they could’ve reduced the stocks in their retail outlets; they could even have made it mandatory for employers to hand over the lion’s share of an alcoholic’s earnings to his wife (!).
And that brings me to the almost unanimous support of women for prohibition. I believe this is partly because most bars in Kerala are stag clubs that no woman can enter, certainly no local woman. A female tourist with a male companion may occasionally be seen in Kerala bars, but a local woman who enters a bar would be, at the very least, uncomfortably stared at. No wonder women support the dismantling of these male fortresses.
I have a few modest proposals that will demolish this sexist barrier and make the bar a woman-friendly place. Since the chief minister is so eager to win over women voters, maybe he will consider winning them over with the following measures? The government should mandate that bars open a family/woman’s section where couples can imbibe in peace. The issuance of the bar license should be contingent on this. As matters stand, women have no stake in the functioning of bars. So they support the closure of bars in the hope that their menfolk would spend more time at home. If women are occasionally able to visit bars and enjoy a drink with their menfolk, I believe their opposition to bars would melt away.
In addition, the government can even open a couple of ladies-only bars as an experiment. When there are ladies-only taxis and ladies-only train compartments, why not ladies-only bars? In other words, instead of an unimaginative knee-jerk action — which is what prohibition is — the government should try and promote moderate drinking among the population — of whom women form a significant proportion — in view of its health benefits, enable non-pregnant women to drink in moderation and derive the aforementioned health benefits, and at the same time encourage its social welfare department and religious and community organizations to identify and monitor alcoholics.
Mothers should also be introduced to benefits of alcohol that they may not be aware of. In fact, the government can institute a free brandy allowance for mothers of infants with intractable feeding problems. Let me hand you over to Sir Arbuthnot Lane (full text here: The Effect of Alcohol):
Early in my professional life I was brought intimately into relation with young infants, some of whom were operated on a few hours after birth. Many of these children were most difficult to feed, they refused to drink their bottles, or if they did they very soon rejected their contents. The addition of a few drops of brandy to each bottle effected a marvellous result. The child swallowed the tasty milk greedily and retained it. As in the case of the infant, the addition to the meal of a reasonable amount of alcohol facilitates digestion, and enables the individual to enjoy a meal which, without the presence of the stimulating action of alcohol, would be repulsive to him. That alcohol is not necessary to the health of the robust individual is well recognized. A moderate amount will often make him a more agreeable companion.
So, Mr. Chief Minister, I’ve shown you a road map to stealing the hearts of women voters with a radical new policy of women-friendly bars and a free brandy allowance to mothers with difficult-to-feed infants. You will thereby get the votes of women without sacrificing the government’s revenue from alcohol sales. Interested, sir? Will you withdraw your prohibition policy? What?? You reject my proposals out of hand?!
Then, sir, I have a few searching questions for you. Sir, are you a teetotaler? Are all your ministers teetotalers? If not, what moral authority do you have to force Prohibition down our throats, to deprive us of the right to enjoy a quiet drink in the evening after a hard day’s work? You and your cabinet colleagues can cozy up with your corporate supplicants in five star bars — what do we do? Don’t you have any shame, sir, to foist this puritanical measure on a freedom-loving people for your own narrow political ends? Are you not aware that drinking in moderation has scientifically proven health benefits?
Shame on you, sir, shame on you! I hope you and your sanctimonious colleagues are unceremoniously shown the door in the next elections, because when the women of Kerala realize that the increased tax burden due to prohibition is cutting into their household budget, they will vote for you with both their dainty feet.