“Jo party daarubandi ki ghoshna kardega, vo Chhattisgarh jit jayega,” said the bus conductor managing the Nagpur to Raipur services for one of Chhattisgarh’s largest bus operators. So confident was this man from Raipur of his belief that he repeated this insight a number of times within the course of our hour-long conversation.
A hundred kilometers from where the conversation had taken place, more than 40 class 12 students shouted in a chorus that prohibition was the most important need of the hour.
Three hundred kilometers from where the students had spoken with great gusto about their priorities, a man drunk to the gills, who also sells liquor, said the government should ban liquor and asked me to talk to women.
The Congress seems to have listened. Their manifesto has announced prohibition within 10 days of coming to power. Not that talk of prohibition is a novel idea of the Congress. In fact, the Raman Singh government had announced last year that the state was moving towards prohibition when it first promulgated an ordinance, then passed a bill and issued the Chhattisgarh Excise (Settlement of Licenses for Retail Sale of Country-Made/Foreign Liquor) Rules, 2017. The rules brought the retail sale of liquor under the state-owned Chhattisgarh State Marketing Corporation Limited through its shops, put curbs on the quantity that could be sold, and later removed such shops from settlements with a population of less than 3000 people.
The move led to at least two sets of criticism.
With the state selling liquor, procurement was under state control. Large liquor companies like United Spirits and Pernod Ricard saw themselves shut out from the state for all practical purposes. These companies moved the Chhattisgarh High Court, and have received relief, complaining that the procurement policy was not transparent and there was arbitrariness favouring some manufacturers because of which sales of their brands have declined significantly. They pleaded before the Court that “in stark contrasts, sales of certain select local manufacturers and suppliers have witnessed massive and unprecedented growth, with some of them achieving growth of 3984%, 1925% and 884% on a year to year comparison of annual sales.”
A cab driver in Rajnandgaon suggested that I join the dots. He showed me a hotel where liquor was still being served oblivious to the fact that liquor licences could still be procured for starred hotels. He then wanted me to take a look at the distillery close to the highway. And he even suggested that the presence of the state-owned shop on the Rajnandgaon bypass meant that Supreme Court orders were being flouted in spirit since what is a bypass, if not a highway (see featured photo). Unlike the cabbie, a BJP functionary did not leave anything to imagination. He told me that the name of a person from Rajnandgaon must have been mentioned when it came to this business of liquor procurement.
But it is not just procurement that has come in from criticism. A lot of men are complaining about the distances they have to travel to get their daily tipple. It is unnecessary inconvenience, especially for those living in villages with a population of less than 3000. Not that this deters them. Also, the intermediary has cropped up ensuring liquor is available at their doorstep. At a restaurant in Shivrinarayan, the waiter poured a couple of drinks for the customers at around 10:30 at night flouting the laws of the state.
This is exactly what those opposed to prohibition as a policy point out. All it does is to take the trade underground, ensure that a liquor-mafia is created and puts a cork on a significant source of revenue for the state.
The Chhattisgarh government in the last budget has projected excise revenue from liquor and other intoxicants production for the year 2018-19 at Rs 4355 crores – an increase of 18% over the previous year and a 17% contributor to the state revenue. Liquor is a significant source of state revenue across India, and its ban always carries the burden of depriving the state of legitimate revenue, which is pushed underground and leads to a criminal-politician-police nexus.
In Chhattisgarh, there is also an age-old cultural tradition to contend with – mahua liquor. With about a third of the population being Adivasis who have traditionally brewed and consumed mahua liquor, banning liquor would undoubtedly constitute an assault on the traditions. Also, there is the usual phenomenon of mahua liquor being purchased by the non-Advasis, kept in cold storages in towns, and then re-sold to the Adivasis at a much-higher price. The middlemen as local distillers are a political force, which adds a business twist to the traditional tale.
Most of the conversations cited above supporting prohibition, and many others across the state, all come from the non-Advasi dominated areas. So the social demand for prohibition comes from middle-Chhattisgarh where liquor consumption is seeing domestic discord and violence. It is to this phenomenon that the bus conductor, the school students, and the drunk man were responding.
So acute is this problem, at least, in the minds of the young that over 100 young students in three different parts of middle-Chhattisgarh that I interacted with were unanimous in their desire to impose prohibition. Yet it would be unstated at first, pointing to an old problem in public opinion assessment. Then one student would say prohibition is what is needed. In my very first such interaction, it was a young man who said the word with everyone in the class talking about roads, water, health facilities and employment. But no sooner was prohibition mentioned that there was a clamour and then a chorus. This was repeated in place after place.
It is this demand that the Congress has articulated in its manifesto, and which the BJP was inching towards when it announced steps towards total prohibition earlier this year. The question is whether this announcement by the Congress addresses a concern in over 60 constituencies in Chhattisgarh. It appears at least to me that if only the young were to vote, Congress would romp home on this announcement. Other than the staple of water, roads, health care and jobs, if there is an issue these elections it is liquor. Congress is first off the blocks on this one. Whether it manages to be first at the finishing line could well lie with the women voters.
Though with all such stories, there is the contrary opinion. When the drunk man told me to just ask the women, they didn’t care too much about liquor. These women, from the same caste as the liquor-vending opponent of alcohol, said that the men do not create a commotion and that after a hard day’s work in the field the men are tired and who is there to massage their tired limbs, and give them some relief. Whether liquor as the salve to the tired wins or loses as the scourge of domestic happiness, the Congress manifesto has responded to a need of the people that might just help their electoral cup brim over.