Tamil Nadu Hooch Tragedy Points to the Need for a Public Health-Centred Approach to Alcohol

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Tamil Nadu Hooch Tragedy Points to the Need for a Public Health-Centred Approach to Alcohol Blog Image

Why in News?

  • India faces recurring tragedies, from road accidents to monsoon flooding, often attributed to an incompetent state unable to enforce laws.
  • Among these tragedies, the recurrent calamities due to the consumption of illicit alcohol stand out, highlighting both legal and moral failures.
  • The recent Kallakurichi hooch tragedy in Tamil Nadu, resulting in nearly 60 deaths, underscores the severe consequences of these failures.

Historical Context of Alcohol Consumption in India

  • Ancient and Medieval Periods
    • References to alcohol, particularly a fermented drink called soma, appear in the Vedic texts and soma was considered a divine drink and was consumed during religious rituals and ceremonies.
    • The Rigveda, one of the oldest Indian scriptures, speaks of soma with reverence, indicating its importance in the social and religious life of that era.
    • During the Mughal period, despite the Quranic prohibition of alcohol, drinking was not uncommon.
    • The Mughal emperors and their courts indulged in wine and other alcoholic beverages, imported from Persia and Central Asia, as well as locally produced drinks.
    • This period saw a flourishing of a sophisticated drinking culture, with alcohol integrated into the fabric of elite social life.
  • Colonial Period
    • The British colonial authorities sought to regulate and control the production and consumption of alcohol, introducing new forms of liquor and establishing a taxation regime.
    • Indigenous alcoholic beverages, which were integral to community celebrations and cultural practices, were stigmatised and restricted.
    • The colonial narrative framed these traditional practices as primitive, promoting instead the consumption of gin and whiskey, distilled in industrial quantities and heavily taxed.
    • This period also saw the birth of the term "Indian-made foreign liquor" (IMFL), which became a symbol of colonial influence.
    • IMFL represented a blend of Western and Indian drinking cultures, embodying the tensions between colonial control and indigenous practices.
    • The British promoted these beverages among the Indian elite, creating a class of brown sahibs who adopted Western lifestyles and drinking habits.
  • Independence and Prohibition Movements
    • The temperance movement, which had been gaining momentum since the late 19th century, found a natural ally in the independence struggle.
    • Leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, who viewed alcohol as a social evil and a threat to moral integrity, championed the cause of prohibition.
    • Gandhi's vision of a free India included a society free from the vices introduced by colonial rule, with alcohol being a prime target.
    • When India gained independence in 1947, the ideals of the temperance movement were enshrined in the Constitution.
    • Article 47 of the Directive Principles of State Policy urged the state to endeavour to bring about prohibition of intoxicating drinks and drugs injurious to health.
    • This made India the only secular and democratic country to constitutionally mandate such a directive, reflecting the strong moral undertones of the independence era.
  • Modern Era and Contemporary Issues
    • In the modern era, state policies on alcohol vary widely, reflecting the ongoing tension between moral, cultural, and economic factors.
    • States like Bihar have experimented with prohibition, driven by concerns over alcohol-fuelled domestic violence and public health.
    • However, these efforts often lead to unintended consequences, such as the proliferation of illicit alcohol production and consumption.

Contradictory Excise Policies and Their Consequences

  • Prohibition and Its Implementation
    • After India gained independence, the constitutional directive to promote prohibition of intoxicating substances was a nod to the moral and cultural values espoused by leaders like Mahatma Gandhi.
    • However, the practical implementation of prohibition was delegated to individual states, leading to a patchwork of policies that reflect a wide spectrum of approaches towards alcohol regulation.
  • Economic Considerations
    • One of the most significant contradictions in alcohol policy arises from the economic benefits that alcohol sales provide to state governments.
    • Alcohol excise is a major source of revenue, often contributing significantly to the state’s budget.
    • For instance, the government of Tamil Nadu generates substantial revenue through the Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation (TASMAC), which controls the sale of alcohol in the state.
    • This economic dependency creates a conflict of interest, making it challenging to implement strict prohibition.
  • Social and Cultural Dimensions
    • The societal perception of alcohol consumption is another area of contradiction.
    • On one hand, traditional and moralistic views continue to stigmatise drinking, associating it with moral decay and social vice.
    • On the other hand, urbanisation and globalisation have brought about a shift in attitudes, particularly among the younger generation and urban elites, who view drinking as a symbol of modernity and personal freedom.
  • Impact on Health and Public Safety
    • In states with prohibition, the consumption of illicit alcohol often leads to mass poisoning incidents, as seen in the Kallakurichi hooch tragedy.
    • The lack of regulatory oversight in the production of illicit alcohol results in dangerous concoctions that can cause severe health issues and fatalities.
  • Surge in Illegal Moonshine Industries
    • These contradictory policies have perpetuated the illegal moonshine industry, driven by the high demand for alcohol in regions where it is criminalised.
    • Law enforcement agencies and political figures often collude with the mafia or fail to enforce the law, with the poor bearing the brunt of these policies.
    • In Bihar, prisons are overcrowded with poor men arrested for drinking, and most victims of hooch tragedies are impoverished.

Way Ahead to Address the Issue of Illicit Alcohol

  • Need for a National Consensus
    • Addressing this issue requires a national consensus to balance public health science and personal freedoms.
    • Lessons from other countries can guide this approach. For instance, revisiting policies on cannabis, which India criminalised under U.S. pressure, despite its long history of use, could be insightful.
    • The U.S. now hosts the largest legal cannabis industry, suggesting potential pathways for India.
  • Strict Quality Control
    • Legalising alcohol consumption with strict quality controls and permitting indigenous alcohol production is crucial.
    • Concurrently, enforcing zero-tolerance for alcohol-related offenses, such as bars selling to underage drinkers, is imperative.
    • Shifting from the traditional in-patient deaddiction centres to evidence-based psychosocial interventions within the primary care network would also help treat harmful drinking non-stigmatising.
  • Learning from International Experience
    • Reflecting on international experiences, such as the culture change in Britain during the late 1980s and 1990s regarding drink-driving, is instructive.
    • The UK extended pub closing hours and strictly enforced drink-driving laws, leading to a societal shift where drink-driving became socially unacceptable.

Conclusion

  • The contradictory policies on alcohol in India reflect a deep-seated tension between moral imperatives, economic interests, and social realities.
  • These contradictions have led to a range of unintended consequences, from the proliferation of illicit alcohol and associated health risks to the reinforcement of gender and socio-economic inequalities.

Addressing these issues requires a comprehensive and balanced approach that integrates public health science, respects personal freedoms, and learns from the experiences of other countries.


Q) What is the primary objective of Article 47 under the Directive Principles of State Policy?

The primary objective of Article 47 is to improve the level of nutrition and the standard of living of people, as well as to promote public health. It mandates the State to regard the raising of the level of nutrition and the standard of living of its people and the improvement of public health as among its primary duties.

Q) How does Article 47 address the issue of intoxicating drinks and drugs?

Article 47 specifically directs the State to prohibit the consumption, except for medicinal purposes, of intoxicating drinks and drugs that are injurious to health. This reflects the State's commitment to promoting public health and reducing the negative impacts of substance abuse.


Source:The Indian Express