Haryana’s tryst with Prohibition failed because of political, economic costs

Haryana’s tryst with less than two years of prohibition in the late 1990’s adds another chapter to the chequered history of prohibition in India.

Delivering on an election promise on the back of the vote of women, the Bansi Lal-led Haryana Vikas Party-Bharatiya Janata Party coalition government imposed prohibition in July 1996. Exactly 21 months later, it decided to lift prohibition in April 1998, at the political cost, apart from economic and legal ramifications.

But does prohibition really work?

It’s a well-known fact that the state’s atoxic tragedy’ led to surge in liquor smuggling and mushrooming up of backyard stills producing arrack, a poor man’s liquor. In this short span over 90,000 cases were registered for violating prohibition laws.

Then government blamed five wet states that ringed around the state for uninterrupted flow of alcohol into the state. At that time, one can spot rows of liquor shops and makeshift bars on the borders of Delhi and Punjab doing whopping business.

Government figures say the imposition of prohibition has cost the state coffer Rs 1,300 crore.

The excise revenue collection, mainly from the auction of liquor vends, in 2021-22 fiscal was Rs 7,938.8 crore, a 17 per cent increase over Rs 6,791.98 crore in 2020-21 fiscal.

In the current fiscal, the VAT on imported foreign liquor has been slashed from 10 per cent to three per cent and reduced from 13-14 per cent to 12 per cent in case of country liquor, wine, beer and India Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL).

What was the major political compulsion that forced then Chief Minister Bansi Lal to scrap prohibition?

The ruling Haryana Vikas Party-BJP combine, which held seven seats in the previous Lok Sabha, could win only two in 1998.

And when he pronounced prohibition, Bansi Lal said: “I would rather cut grass for a livelihood than lift prohibition.”

Later officially admitting his ‘blunder’ of continuing with prohibition, a disappointed Bansi Lal, who won the 1996 Lok Sabha and Assembly elections in the state on the promise of making it illegal to buy, sell, consume or produce alcohol, had remarked: “When the people don’t want prohibition any longer, sacrificing a huge excise revenue is meaningless.”

At that time, BJP’s Ganeshi Lal, who was named a minister for prohibition, said the prohibition policy was too good to succeed but he apologised for its failure.

When Ganeshi Lal announced that, “Aaj se sharab bandi khatam (Prohibition ends from today),” the people gathered there burst into applause.

Political observers say to offset the loss of revenue owing to prohibition, the government had to fill its coffers by spiking electricity rates by 10-50 per cent, bus fares by 25 per cent, and the petrol sales tax by three per cent.

The adverse impact with booze ban was state’s tourism industry as tourists preferred to visit neighbouring states where there was no prohibition. Also profits of almost all hotels and restaurants, including those run by the state-owned Haryana Tourism, plummeted.

In a major latest decision taken by the BJP-JJP government as part of its liquor licensing policy, the pubs and restaurants will have the option to remain open 24×7 in the state.

The new rule aims to counter its neighbouring Delhi’s excise policy under which bars and restaurants serving liquor can remain open till 3 a.m.

Morni, a tourist destination amidst the hills of Panchkula, has been added to the list of places where bar licencees can be granted to promote tourism and adventure sport.

Since the state government annulled the liquor ban, state women and child development minister Kavita Jain was probably the first lawmaker who said in 2017, “As a woman she feels that prohibition should be imposed in the state”.

Without mincing words, she had said such a move would not work if there was no such ban in the neighbouring states.

Narrating one of the most profound effects of prohibition, she said: “Those who are habitual drinkers, when they don’t get liquor, turn violent in their homes and are ready to spend any amount to procure it. Then the situation turns more explosive.”

With a state surrounded by five wet states — Punjab, New Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh, and Union Territory of Chandigarh, being the joint capital of Punjab and Haryana and is exempt from prohibition, many senior bureaucrats admit privately to IANS privately that many of them inventing excuses to make official visit Chandigarh or New Delhi to cheers in the time prohibition.

Unlike rodents gulp over 11,000 litres of liquor kept in a malkhana (warehouse) as exhibit of the court in Bihar, a police station in Haryana’s Rohtak town chance upon a different kind of rot — a huge alcohol seized when it was out of bounds for people 21 years ago.

In December 2019, the police crushed the stock that comprised some 2.35 lakh pouches, 70,871 bottles, and 3,972 kg of ‘lahan’, an ingredient used to make liquor.

(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at vishal.g@ians.in)

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