Kallakurichi tragedy: No, prohibition will not end illicit liquor deaths

To deliberately ignore the nature of the problem – that people will drink one way or another – has contributed largely to liquor poisoning deaths.
Kallakurichi tragedy: No, prohibition will not end illicit liquor deaths
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After the Kallakurichi illicit liquor tragedy rocked the state last month, the familiar demand to enforce total prohibition has resurfaced in Tamil Nadu. However, while the demand often comes as a knee-jerk reaction each time such a tragedy occurs, what data tells us over and over again is this: prohibition is a proven policy failure across the world. It also needs to be pointed out that the private production of liquor is already banned in Tamil Nadu. The 65 lives in Kallakurichi were lost to privately produced liquor, even with this ban in place.

Why? Lack of enforcement, corrupt local police and very simply the victims’ inability to afford the authorised liquor sold at Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation (TASMAC) outlets. As TNM reported earlier, the victims in Kallakurichi are daily-wage earners who make Rs 300 to Rs 500 a day. Where TASMAC charges at least Rs 135 to Rs 175 for the smallest bottle of liquor (180 ml), Kannukutty – the prime accused – was selling arrack at Rs 60 to Rs 70 per packet (50 ml).

In May 2023, 22 people were killed after drinking spurious alcohol in Villupuram and Chengalpattu districts. In Kallakurichi, apart from the horrifying death toll of 65, over a hundred were hospitalised.

Both tragedies, like others before them in Tamil Nadu or in the rest of the country and other parts of the world, make one thing clear: mere laws banning alcohol production or consumption do not stop the actual production and consumption of alcohol. When the price set by a state monopoly is too high, private, illegal players enter the game without fear of quality checks and provide cheaper alcohol. When liquor sales are banned in one state, bootlegging networks spring up, bringing it in from neighbouring states instead. To deliberately ignore the nature of the problem – that people will drink one way or another – has contributed largely to liquor poisoning deaths.

The abysmal track record of states with prohibition

In 2022, two of India’s states where alcohol is banned – Gujarat and Bihar — saw a total of  at least 115 deaths due to methanol-laced illicit liquor. In Bihar, where 73 of the deaths were reported to have occurred, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar remarked to mediapersons at the time: “Those who consume alcohol will die, there is nothing new to this.” His unfeeling comments were emphasised by the state government’s refusal to offer monetary compensation to victims and families of the deceased. Nitish even went to the extent of calling BJP MLAs – the Opposition members at the time – “drunkards” for demanding his resignation over the tragedy.

These political squabbles overshadow a more urgent concern. The 73 deaths added to the state’s growing tally since the implementation of the Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016. Even before this tragedy, Bihar’s prohibition policy had invited the criticism of former Chief Justice of India NV Ramana who in 2021 called it an “example of lack of foresight in drafting legislation.”

News reports on the Bihar tragedy read dismally similar to the Kallakurichi tragedy. The Telegraph made an indicting observation after the Bihar deaths: “One local doctor described ‘body after body’ arriving at his clinic from the surrounding villages and having no medication to treat those still alive, a byproduct of India’s broken public health system, one of the most underfunded in the world.”

They also highlighted two other significant factors. One, that the Bihar government had reportedly ignored the warning of Dr Shaqueel Ahmad, a public health activist whose policy advice they had sought before implementing the ban in 2016. The doctor had reportedly cautioned that enforcing a complete ban would be difficult and instead recommended stricter regulations. But Bihar was set for Assembly polls at the time and many believe that the Act was implemented to appeal to women voters.

Secondly, the danger of criminalising the consumption of alcohol is that there is a high likelihood of increase in fatalities from illicit liquor. Victims may fear approaching a healthcare facility before it’s too late. 

Further, a 2023 report by the National Human Rights Commision (NHRC), accused the Bihar government of suppressing the actual death toll. According to the NHRC, at least 77 deaths had occurred as opposed to the state’s initial number of 42. “The state administration tried to minimise the gravity of the incident,” the NHRC report said. 

The policy was amended in 2022 (before the tragedy) after an exasperated Supreme Court pulled up the Bihar government for failing to conduct an impact assessment before enforcing the alcohol ban. The apex court’s ire stemmed from discovering constant clogs at the Patna High Court and trial courts in the state as judges were tied up daily in bail hearings over charges of liquor consumption. The 2022 amendment sought to expedite the trial process and focus on convicting illicit liquor suppliers rather than consumers. According to PRS Legislative, 45,000 FIRs were registered in Bihar between 2018 and 2020, while the number of cases pending trial increased by four times what courts were used to. 

It’s also worth noting that in 2023, in the face of increasing criticism, the Bihar police released a 10-page list detailing the number of deaths due to spurious liquor since the 2016 alcohol ban. While police claimed that a total of 199 deaths had occurred in the seven-year period, the actual numbers are estimated to be much higher. Further, the police had also admitted to zero convictions in any of these cases. To state the obvious, while courts were bogged down hearing bail pleas for consuming liquor, not a single conviction of those responsible for even the official number of 199 deaths had been managed.

What Gujarat’s liquor death data tells us

Meanwhile, Gujarat has had an alcohol ban in place since its bifurcation from the Bombay state in 1960, except in Gujarat International Finance Tec (GIFT) city, where the ban was lifted in 2023 in order to attract global investments. But like Bihar, the state has seen multiple mass deaths from alcohol poisoning. Again, data tells a different story from any claims that prohibition works to curb alcohol-related deaths. Mere months after the 42 deaths in 2022, it came to light that Gujarat had, in the previous year, topped the country in the number of cases registered under prohibition and narcotics laws. 

According to the 2021 National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report, 2,83,678 cases were registered under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act in Gujarat out of the all India total of 10,93,028. Following closely on Gujarat’s heels was Tamil Nadu with 2,08,466 cases. The minimal distinction between Gujarat and Tamil Nadu in the number of registered cases doesn’t make for a convincing argument for prohibition. 

The 2022 deaths were not the first in the state either. In 2009, Ahmedabad witnessed one of the starkest mass liquor deaths in recent times. The official death toll stood at a shocking 150. Demands to repeal prohibition were made by many and ignored by the then Narendra Modi-led state government. Initially, there were large-scale police crackdowns in Ahmedabad with over 8,ooo raids. More than 6,700 people were booked for violating the state’s prohibition laws. 

After the 2009 tragedy, the Gujarat government set up the Laththa Commission headed by retired Justice KM Mehta to investigate the deaths. The term ‘laththa’ refers to illicit liquor. The Commission’s report was scathing. It found an “unholy nexus between police personnel and bootleggers.” The report said, “It is quite obvious that the police personnel in all probability would have facilitated bootleggers to carry out their antisocial activities in return for hefty hafta (handsome bribe)” and added that what “intrigued” the Commission more was “the sluggish actions on the part of the police personnel, than the intensive activity of bootleggers.”

It was only in 2019 that six persons were convicted for this tragedy. However, the Sessions court that heard the case threw out the state government’s charge of murder, convicting the accused under IPC section 304, Part II (culpable homicide) instead. The state government had previously amended its prohibition policy to allow IPC section 302 (murder) to be applied in cases of alcohol poisoning deaths. Notably, no police personnel who were accused were convicted. 

Further, Gujarat had also seen mass liquor deaths in 1989 (135 victims) and in 1977 (101 victims). All of them had died due to methanol poisoning.

In Nagaland, where an alcohol ban was enforced in 1989, the state government continues to dither over repealing its Nagaland Liquor Total Prohibition (NLTP) Act. As far back as 2010, CM Neiphiu Rio had admitted that the ban had been a failure in the state. But with the NLTP Act enjoying the support of a powerful Christian lobby, a consensus is yet to be reached. Again, the ban only appears to be on paper, with alcohol illegally coming in through Dimapur where Nagaland shares a border with Assam. 

Tamil Nadu’s dance with prohibition

Tamil Nadu's history with prohibition laws dates as far back as 1937 when alcohol was banned in Salem in the erstwhile Madras Presidency. However, permits could be obtained in order to consume alcohol — a move introduced by then Chief Minister C Rajagopalachari. Post-Independence, the Congress banned alcohol throughout the state after it came to power in Tamil Nadu in 1952.

The ban would stay in place until 1971, when the M Karunanidhi-led government briefly lifted it citing losses to state revenue and the fact that people simply procured alcohol from neighbouring states anyway. As realistic as this view was, the DMK quickly backtracked and brought back the ban in 1974.

In 1981 when the AIADMK came to power, MGR lifted the ban and in 1987 prohibited the sale of arrack and toddy. In 1983, his government also founded TASMAC, which was tasked with the manufacture and procurement of Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL).

The early 90s saw another back and forth. In 1990, DMK lifted the ban on arrack and toddy, which many believed was because TASMAC wasn’t making enough money. Jayalalithaa reversed the move in a year’s time, also doing away with the Karunanidhi era ‘maluvu vilai madhu’ or low-cost liquor that she would dismiss as “packet sarayam”. Unsurprisingly, the number of methanol poisoning deaths shot up in the state. In 2001 alone, after a decade of unchecked spurious liquor sales, at least 100 people lost their lives in three separate incidents.

By 2003, during Jayalalithaa’s tenure as CM, TASMAC took over retail sales of alcohol as well, making it the state-run monopoly it remains to this day. From 2015, after the death of Congress worker and Gandhian pro-prohibition activist Sasi Perumal, calls for an alcohol ban became a deeply entrenched vote-bank issue rather than an administrative and socio-economic one. 

SK Perumal, who later adopted the moniker ‘Sasi’ Perumal by which he would be known, had campaigned for prohibition since 1971 when the alcohol ban was lifted for the first time in the state. He died in Kanyakumari in 2015, atop a 150-feet high mobile tower, while demanding the closure of a local TASMAC store in the vicinity of a school. Perumal had over decades become a known face for prohibitionists. At the time of his death, the AIADMK was in power. His death sparked outrage across the state and demands for an alcohol ban suddenly became the key electoral issue for the 2016 Assembly elections. Opposition leaders including Karunanidhi, PMK’s Anbumani Ramadoss, MDMK chief  Vaiko, then Tamil Nadu BJP president Tamilisai Soundararajan all demanded prohibition. This would prompt then-CM Jayalalithaa in 2016 to promise to bring in prohibition in a phase-by-phase manner, if re-elected. 

Needless to say, neither the AIADMK nor the DMK have shown the inclination to truly enforce a total ban on alcohol. Meanwhile, without any effective state intervention, tragic deaths due to methanol laced liquor happen year after year with no lasting solution in sight. While the gap between the rates followed by illegal private players and TASMAC continues to claim lives – mostly of the economically and socially marginalised – the state’s revenue from liquor sales remains undented.

According to a 2020 Crisil report, Tamil Nadu accounted for 13% – the highest – of the liquor consumption in the 11 states and Union Territories it reviewed including New Delhi (4%), Karnataka (12%), Uttar Pradesh (5%), Punjab (4%) and Kerala (5%). In the financial year 2022-2023, TASMAC made Rs 44,121 crore. However, as TNM reported earlier, the state government spent a paltry 0.01% (Rs 5 crore) of this revenue on rehabilitating prohibition offenders. This despite the fact that rehabilitation of bootleggers is ratified within the Tamil Nadu Prohibition and Excise Policy itself as a practical means to curb the brewing of illicit liquor.

TASMAC’s own staff do not appear to be benefiting from the substantial funds it generates either. According to a Frontline report from 2022, TASMAC workers “remain poorly paid, the outlets shoddy” and the “quality of alcohol is [still] bad”. Even though the state government had promised to regularise employees in 2003, the report says, their posts continued to remain temporary. Workers had also alleged to Frontline at the time that the state government’s target-oriented sales strategy penalised staff members for factors outside their control, such as the economic backgrounds of the neighbourhoods the outlets were situated in.

History’s most (in)famous prohibition failure

The socio-cultural and economic twists and turns of the US’ Prohibition Era (1920 to 1933) has had a lasting impact on the country. Here’s how The Smithsonian Museum recalls the ‘Roaring Twenties’ after the Volstead Act that banned the production, distribution, and transportation of alcohol came into effect: “The intent was to solve some of the nation’s most pressing social issues, including alcoholism, childhood malnutrition, and domestic violence. Instead Prohibition uncorked an exuberant cultural freedom and a host of new social problems, with heady effects still felt today. Attempts to circumvent or profit from Prohibition gave crime new meaning, provoking a 12-year-long gang war that made Al Capone, [the notorious American gangster of the 1920s], a household name.”  

Information regarding the rise in organised crime directly due to prohibition has become ubiquitous. Whether through retrospective impact assessments and policy changes or cult classic favourites like the Al Pacino-starrer Scarface (1983), the US was forced to openly acknowledge prohibition’s failure.

“The rackets spawned by enactment of the Prohibition Amendment – illegal brewing, distilling and distribution of beer and liquor – were viewed as ‘growth industries’,” the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) admits in its public case records of Al Capone’s infamous trial. The FBI further observes, “Al Capone ruled an empire of crime in the Windy City: gambling, prostitution, bootlegging, bribery, narcotics trafficking, robbery, ‘protection’ rackets, and murder. And it seemed that law enforcement couldn’t touch him.” Interestingly, the FBI itself was formed from the 1933 merging of two existing US agencies – the Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Prohibition.

Meanwhile, on its official blog, the US’ National Archives and Records Administration carries an article titled ‘Prohibition and the Rise of the American Gangster’. The article provides fascinating insights into the political backdrop within which the ‘noble experiment’ (as Prohibition was branded then) emerged and what legacy it left.

“As organised crime syndicates grew throughout the Prohibition era, territorial disputes often transformed America’s cities into violent battlegrounds. Homicides, burglaries, and assaults consequently increased significantly between 1920 and 1933,” the article notes. It goes on to say that law enforcement agencies were “overwhelmed” by the crime wave.

The emergence of alternative/black markets as streamlined criminal empires in the face of prohibition or partial bans, as it has in many historic cases including Kallakurichi, should not come as a surprise. But why this loop of artificial scarcity supplemented by bootlegged and spurious alcohol still remains unbroken is a question state governments in India have not provided answers to yet.

Read: Ground Report: Lethal nexus of bootlegger and corrupt cops led to Kallakurichi tragedy

Going back to the US Prohibition Era, law enforcement was not just overwhelmed. Corruption among underpaid low-ranking cops, bribery, police brutality in the name of enforcing the Volstead Act, custodial torture, coerced confessions, warrantless raids on private properties, and targeted harassment of working-class Black and migrant (particularly Irish) communities became rampant. Horrifying details of this can be read in Professor of Law at Duquesne University (Pennsylvania) Wesley M Oliver’s book The Prohibition Era and Policing: A Legacy of Misregulation. “Police misconduct came to the forefront of the American experience in the 1920s, and it took a variety of forms. Searches and seizure abuses, third-degree interrogation practices, excessive force, and even unjustified shootings were all part of the Prohibition Era,” Oliver writes. 

Historian and author of The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State, Lisa McGirr, told Slate in 2015, “Policing took on a role in enforcing the law in particular against groups that were already identified with criminality: poor people, immigrants, African Americans.” Her book traces how the Prohibition Era had grassroots ties to the American right-wing, including to violent white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan.

What activists say

Executive Director at People’s Watch Henri Tiphagne previously told TNM that consecutive Tamil Nadu governments have failed to hold the state’s Prohibition Enforcement Wing duly responsible for repeated liquor deaths. Referring to the revelation that the police had been taking bribes for years from Kannukutty, the prime accused in the Kallakurichi liquor tragedy, the activist also said, “It is up to the government which has opened these shops to ensure the availability of good quality liquor at accessible prices for the poor. People are being forced to resort to illegal sources, while the police are making money off poor people. The state government is safeguarding the police, because that is the only way for them to safeguard themselves.” 

TNM also spoke to founder and CEO of the International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care (PCVC) Prasanna Gettu to understand the overlaps between domestic violence and alcoholism. “Alcohol consumption is used as an excuse to not place responsibility on the perpetrator. Particularly, we have found that informal authorities such as families often tell survivors who want to leave abusive homes that the perpetrator is ‘violent only when they drink’. However, the targeted violence towards a partner or children shows that perpetrators are fully aware of whom they are assaulting. Also, physical violence is just one form of abuse. Perpetrators inflict psychological violence or economic exploitation as well, which they do when sober too,” she said. 

Prasanna further said that in her experience, ‘dry’ days – when alcohol sales are temporarily suspended – lead to increased violence at home. “There is significantly more stress at home. The perpetrator is often angry about the dry day and takes it out on family members. Family members are then forced to walk on eggshells to keep the perpetrator in a good mood.” She also drew attention to how the attitude of placing responsibility on alcohol rather than on the perpetrator often extends to shielding child sexual abusers. Alcohol consumption is constantly used as an excuse to claim that the perpetrator wasn’t ‘aware’ of what they did.

“This can have a lasting impact on children who grow up in such abusive homes. The child may grow up equating being powerful with drinking. They can end up believing that they can do whatever they want; that if they assault someone after drinking, they won’t be held responsible,” Prasanna added.

There is also the concern of excessive and prejudiced policing. Take the Goondas Act — a draconian state law introduced in MGR’s tenure with the claim of preventing bootlegging and drug trafficking. To date, the Act is evoked indiscriminately by the Tamil Nadu police. So much so that in 2022 the Madras High Court observed: “The Goondas Act has become the favourite hunting ground for police.

As Kathir, founder-director of the Dalit rights organisation Evidence, pointed out, “A law that was introduced with the claim of curbing bootlegging is evoked today to jail political activists. Enforcing total prohibition is unrealistic. Instead, the attention should be on increasing awareness about the dangers of alcohol abuse and stricter regulation of sales. The state’s income through TASMAC in the last year was Rs 44,121 crore. For comparison, that’s close to 12 times the allocated budget for Adi Dravidar welfare (Rs 3,706 crore) this year. Why can’t the state government spend more of the income from TASMAC on improving de-addiction centres instead?”

Also for comparison, the Tamil Nadu Budget 2024-2025 has earmarked Rs 20 crore for setting up 25 new de-addiction centres. A 2019 news report highlighted that even in the capital city Chennai the state government has not set up dedicated de-addiction centres other than those attached to PHCs and government hospitals.

Also read: TN earns Rs 44,121 cr from TASMAC, spends only Rs 5 cr on rehab of bootleggers

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