A Remedy Worse Than The Malady

By Sandeep Sahu

It has been just two days since the Supreme Court imposed a ban on liquor shops within 500 meters of national highways and we have already got a taste of the kind of problems the decision may lead to. There certainly is a lesson for the government in what happened in Nuapada today. Angry at the administration turning a deaf ear to a plea by the local community not to allow the liquor shops uprooted by the SC decision to operate from a makeshift venue deep inside a residential area, hundreds of villagers of Gadtor and Sakhator barged into the shops and ransacked them before setting fire to them.

What happened in Nuapada is of course not something new. From Mayurbhanj to Malkangri, the scene that one saw in Nuapada has been played over and over again in the last few years. Exasperated at an impervious administration, the local communities – especially the women among them – have repeatedly taken law unto their hands and ransacked liquor shops, both legal and illegal. Neither was there anything surprising in the way the local police responded in Nuapada. “We will crush those anti-socials who unleashed a reign of terror,” thundered Bidyut Panda,the Nuapada SDPO, looking suitably enraged on TV. What was new in this case is the new menace of liquor shops in residential areas now that they have been banished from the side of the highways. [One should actually be thankful for small mercies of the SDPO that he restricted himself, at least for the time being, to issuing just a threat and not opening fire like his counterpart in Namtara did two years ago, leaving nine persons, including women and children, with critical bullet injuries!]

With all due respect to their Lordships, this columnist believes that in enforcing the 500-meter rule, the honourable Supreme Court judges have come up with a remedy worse than the malady. It is plain naïve to think that drivers plying vehicles on national highways, who are used to drunken driving, would suddenly turn monks once the liquor shops are banished from the road side. What is 500 meters after all for someone who must have his fill? Is it really such a daunting distance to dissuade someone who can’t do without his drink while driving? Even assuming that it is, what prevents him from stocking enough stuff for the journey at the starting place and turn his vehicle into a makeshift bar whenever he pleases on the way? Just as the ritual hike in excise and other duties on cigarettes in every single budget has failed to persuade even one smoker from giving up on his fag, I am afraid the 500-meter ban would fail to curb drunken driving one bit. The purpose for which the rule was conceived in the first place thus stands defeated even before it has been enforced.

Now, let us consider the unintended consequences of the ill-conceived Supreme Court decision. Reports have been pouring in from all over the state that in the aftermath of the ban, liquor shops have started straying into residential areas in most places – as in the case of Nuapada. Things cannot be very different in other states. The ban imposed to discourage drunken drinking on national highways has thus unwittingly created the risk of creating more drunkards in villages unfortunate enough to be located close to the NHs. Already battling the liquor menace in the vicinity, villagers would now have an additional problem on their hands.

It is easy to foresee incidents like the one that happened in Nuapada today recurring at other places in the state , especially since the police and the local administration have unfailingly been on the side of the liquor vendors rather than on the side of the villagers. Someone should have asked the Nuapda SDPO whether the administration had given permission to the liquor vendor to open shop at the makeshift venue. If not, then was it not the duty of the police to evict the liquor shops from the place illegally occupied by them rather than threaten the villagers with dire consequences? Conversely, if the permission to operate had indeed been given to the liquor shops there, was it not playing with fire since the villagers had apparently been complaining repeatedly against the liquor vend?

Why is it that the local administration, the police, the excise department – and the government as a whole – is always on the side of the liquor shop owners and against the people? Is it just the Rs 2500 crore revenue that liquor trade brings to the state exchequer every year or is there something more to it? What, after all, is Rs 2500 crore in a state that just passed a budget worth Rs 1.06 lakh crores? It works out to just 2.5% of the budget, an amount that certainly can be raised from other sources by a government that has absolutely no qualms about spending thousands of crores on doles of all kinds.

This columnist would not advocate total prohibition on the lines of the one imposed by Nitish Kumar in Bihar because it is bound to lead to an exponential growth in bootlegging and sale of spurious liquor – as it has done in every state, including Bihar, that has sought to enforce total prohibition. But it is high time the government stopped taking the lead in promoting the consumption of liquor riding roughshod over the people’s wishes.

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