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Sunday Sentiments


    Posted On June 30, 2024

    By Karan Thapar

    The truth is deaths caused by the consumption of spurious liquor are double tragedies. Not only are they horrific but they’re also entirely preventable. Man has caused them but man can also ensure they do not occur. All it requires is the acceptance of  a cold fact of reality. Not all human beings are teetotalers. Many want to drink. They enjoy doing so. And, frankly in any mature, sensible, democratic society they have an inalienable right to do so. It’s attempts to deny that right or place unacceptable curbs on it that causes the problem.


    If safe, good quality and cheap or reasonably priced alcohol is available for all adults to buy, within all the acknowledged and accepted conditions of the law, few if any people would risk their lives drinking hooch. The vast majority of drinkers are not suicidal. They simply want to relax, ease their tension and tiredness or spend an enjoyable evening. It’s because they can’t buy what they want that they resort to what is dangerous and even likely to kill. But, remember, death was never their intention. It’s just the unintended corollary of what circumstances have forced on them.


    At the root of the problem is the belief that alcohol is bad and, therefore, its consumption must be stopped or, at least, severely discouraged. Article 47 of our constitution says “the State shall endeavour to bring about prohibition of the consumption, except for medicinal purposes, of intoxicating drinks and of drugs which are injurious to health.”


    No doubt in excess alcohol is bad. Only a fool would deny that. But so, too, is sugar, butter, cream and, indeed, even exercise. However, taken in moderation it becomes a different matter. And, anyway, adults are entitled to decide for themselves. Even make their own mistakes. Prohibition as state policy (as in Bihar and Gujarat) is not just a deliberate denial of the rights of citizens but it infantilizes them. The nanny state makes children of us and it doesn’t know best. But governments that treat their people like toddlers in a nursery seem unable to accept that.


    There is, however, a deeper problem. It explains this attitude to alcohol. It’s why leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and, sometimes, constitutions like ours seek to wean people away from what they consider human weakness or vice. It’s the mistaken quest to make people perfect or, at least, to strive towards it. From a moral position this may make sense. Perhaps from a practical standpoint it could prevent problems. But from a human perspective it assumes someone in authority is entitled to decide what’s right and if you differ you’re wrong.


    This is true of how Mahatma Gandhi and the governments of Bihar and Gujarat view alcohol. It’s also true of Rishi Sunak’s foolish proposal to ban people born after a particular year from smoking cigarettes. They believe that if protected from their own temptation human beings can be transformed. But they’re wrong.


    True transformation comes from learning from your mistakes. But you have to first make those mistakes to learn. This is the difference between people who’ve given up smoking and those who never took it up. A lesson learnt from experience is deeper and longer lasting than one enforced by mummy.


    The truly bizarre part is alcohol is part of our culture and ancient traditions. Soma ras was the nectar of the Gods. Indra was particularly partial to it. Prohibition, on the other hand, is foreign. America tried it in the 1920s and failed. And that raises another set of issues we need to address. Why don’t we follow the way of our Gods? That would be the perfectly desi thing to do. Why, instead, are we imitating the American way?


    The moral of this piece is simple and straightforward. Good governance lies in making sure honest people can drink safely within the prescriptions of the law. Bad governance is making that difficult, if not impossible, and pushing them to alternatives that often kill.

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