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Posted on 15 June 2011

Man can’t handle drink, at any age

Maharashtra’s new legal age for drinking is the oldest in the world. Here’s why it won’t make a difference to the parties affected by alcohol

THERE ARE many reasons why humans like alcohol, only one of them being the thrill of doing something one is not supposed to when very young. Like anywhere else, they tend to drink like there’s no tomorrow in Maharashtra, home to some of the worst cases of alcoholism and addiction in India. Until a few days, the legal age for drinking was 21. Now it is 25, the oldest on the planet. The decision was made after Maharashtra Minister of Social Justice and Deaddiction Activities Shivajirao Moghe pushed for it. That Maharashtra has such a portfolio is extraordinary and there are many states in India that could do with similar responsibility.

But Moghe’s measures require attention. He has pushed the government into banning alcohol at all public functions and ceremonies, imposing fines for underage drinking, increasing the number of dry days, extending the areas where liquor vends are not permitted, limiting the number of alcohol bottles an individual may have and ordering the closure of a vend or bar if 25 per cent of the residents of a municipal ward say so. These are some of the measures in the run-up to a policy on deaddiction, which is no mean thing in these times of denial.

Governments, like everyone else, are creatures of habit. Administrations the world over have tried the methods being proposed in Maharashtra. And they haven’t worked. Age makes no difference to people. They’ll reach for a drink if they feel like it, or if the risk is thrilling enough and worth it. So, it’s not like anyone is going to freeze and think they are only 24. They’d go right ahead and drink. Likewise, dry days have failed everywhere. Most people stock up for dry days. The ones who don’t simply head for the bootlegger’s. Even making liquor vends scarcer doesn’t work because they’ll just go the extra mile.

What might work is the 25 per cent objection clause, where a vend or a bar could be shut if a quarter of the population says so. This is fairly democratic and gives people a chance to debate it. In the chawls of Mumbai, this could be a boon. Women, thus far terrified by the drinking habits of male partners, would have an option henceforth. Community shame is still a powerful tool and could be used effectively against liquor sellers, by forcing them to look elsewhere.


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However, while liquor barons can be shamed into taking their business elsewhere, people who drink think differently. The new Maharashtra policy is not aimed at the liquor seller. It is aimed at the liquor buyer. The average normal drinker has no cause to feel embarrassed. They are not doing anything illegal. They want to have a good time. They meet, have fun and go home. This is what a majority of the drinkers do. We have to remember that if everyone who drank became an alcoholic, there would be no place for the sane. Since we haven’t been overrun by alcoholics yet, it is a fair call that the normal drinkers outnumber the alcoholics.

Here comes the tricky part. Almost unnoticed, the normal becomes the abnormal. Lulled by habit, people who drink tend to increase their intake slowly. Even the best of humans is susceptible to this. It takes extraordinary balance of mind and body to stay a sober drinker. When things tend to go out of control, as they do when people start to get home late and drunk every day, there’s tension at home. Over time, this travels out of a home and there is tension wherever a problem drinker is: at work, in a bar, at a party or in a cinema.

THIS IS what the new policy is targeted at. They want to make access to liquor difficult for people. Trouble is, it never works. From 1920 to 1933, the United States had banned the sale, manufacture and transportation of alcohol. It created the first instance of organised crime, led by Al Capone who was among the world’s most notorious bootleggers. The US repealed its prohibition policy and reverted to normal after the streets began to be littered with corpses. The US undid prohibition for crime reasons and Mumbai might want to pick up the history books.

Crime apart, there are reasons why the rest of the world either doesn’t bother with legal ages for drinking or keeps them young. For instance, in European nations and Albania people are allowed to drink in homes at whatever age they wish to. Some families offer medicinal quantities to children on festive occasions to make them feel part of the fun that the adults are having. So there is no concept of a legal age for drinking in these countries. Most Muslim nations too don’t bother with legal ages for drinking. They simply don’t allow anyone to drink. But as these societies begin to open up, the authorities don’t get after people who drink anymore. In Pakistan, for instance, liquor has a huge social following.

In most countries, the legal age is between 17 and 21. But that in any case has no bearing over the process that a person undergoes from being a normal imbiber to becoming a problem drinker. Barely anyone drinks merely for the fun of breaking a law. They do so because of a complex mix of emotional, family and social reasons that are not under a government’s control.

Resentment is a principal cause of alcoholism and this resentment is rarely over government policies. For example, almost no one becomes an alcoholic because they resent the labour laws or gender laws. Serious resentments are always personal. Laws have nothing to do with them. Family usually becomes the first cause of alcoholism, just as it becomes the first cause of achievements too. Governments have nothing to do with how a person relates to family.

Money is another big reason why laws fail. Political parties are almost always beholden to liquor manufacturers for funds. This makes it difficult for them to push tough laws. Also, governments tend to rely on alcohol sales to raise precious revenue. Many governments in India sell alcohol and use the revenue to fund infrastructure projects. The governments of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, to list a few, balance their books from liquor revenue. This makes it difficult for them to deal with ensuing problems when crime and alcoholism rise. In some states, arguments are made out that a child going to school is a more powerful motivator than a dying alcoholic. So, they want to sell liquor and build schools.

Gujarat has managed to hold on to its prohibition policy but there are more than crime reasons for that. The liquor lobby in the pre-Narendra Modi days was run by Muslims and Modi broke their back. This pleased the Hindu business lobby and so they support the prohibition policy. Maharashtra works differently. It is India’s commercial capital and must have more than do-good reasons for serious policy. It is not clear just how much of this complex mix pushed actors Amitabh Bachchan and Imran Khan, one old and the other young, into opposing the new policy. Bachchan tweeted saying it was strange and Khan is considering a Public Interest Litigation.

Vijay Simha is Executive Editor with Tehelka.com.
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Posted on 15 June 2011



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