The Gujarat hooch tragedy has claimed the lives of 136 people in Ahmedabad. The hooch contained four times the permitted amount of methyl alcohol. Hundreds are still in hospital and according to reports about 1,100 litres of the adulterated liquor was brought into Ahmedabad. The liquor was allegedly supplied by the Hari Om gang, which regularly paid off policemen to run the dangerous business smoothly.
Extortion money from liquor manufacturers is allegedly a thriving business in Gandhi's Gujarat.
Never before in the history of the dry state of Gujarat have so many people lost their lives as a result of drinking illicit liquor. Is adulterated liquor the direct result of prohibition? Should the law be relaxed to avoid such incidents in the future?
The question debated on CNN-IBN's Face The Nation was: Should prohibition in Gujarat be scrapped?
The panel of experts included: State Health Minister and Spokesperson, Gujarat government, Jay Narayan Vyas; Founder, MaltMarch.org, Dinesh Hinduja and great grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, Tushar Gandhi.
At the beginning of the show, 60 per cent viewers agreed that prohibition of alcohol in Gujarat should be scrapped, while 40 per cent disagreed.
Prohibition cause of hooch deaths
It is universally recognised and even in India - where several states have abolished prohibition on the consumption of alcohol - that the policy leads directly to criminalisation and to illicit liquor. It is what drives the liquor trade underground. Prohibition is an invitation to more such tragedies to take place.
Jay Narayan Vyas responded by saying it is too simplistic to say that prohibition is what leads to such tragedies and that there were other states - which do not have prohibition on the consumption of liquor - where such incidents have also taken place.
"There are far more larger dimension of tragedies in other states. The states where prohibition is not practiced and where such tragedies have taken place… the reason is the price sensitivity of the demand. People can't afford the liquor that is available and hence there is thriving illicit liquor trade even in the states without prohibition on liquor," Vyas said.
No political party has come up against the prohibition against Gujarat which implies the support for prohibition in Gujarati society. To promote drinking in Gujarat would fly in the face of the social norms.
To this, Dinesh Hinduja, founder of Maltmarch.org website that talks about the need to have a reasonable alcohol policy within Gujarat, replied that whichever party is in power in Gujarat faces the same flak. He further agued that prohibition should be scrapped as it will further fuel the underground trade.
"I've been saying for years, I stand by prohibition being scrapped. I think prohibition is a great menace not only to Gujarat but to the rest of the country too," he said.
Gandhi's Gujarat subverting Gandhi
It is said that Gandhiji's Gujarat must have prohibition as the Mahatma wanted the consumption of alcohol to stop. Is this argument valid?
Tushar Gandhi retorted saying the argument was invalid. He said it's not right to say that it is because of Gandhi that Gujarat has prohibition and that he stood for protection the poor from the evils of liquor.
"There are many other things which Bapu stood for which we should be practicing, but which no one does. Prohibition in Gujarat is an industry which finances politics, politicians and police," he said.
On a personal note, Tushar Gandhi felt the poll should be conducted on the wives of those who have lost their lives due to hooch. He said they would insist prohibition should be practiced in Gujarat.
However, Gandhiji never advocated making prohibition into a law, for him it was a personal code just like vegetarianism and the boycott of foreign goods. But he left the decision to the individual conscience, as it was the Gandhian vision. He never emphasised harnessing state power to the cause of a personal code.
Tushar Gandhi disagreed and said that Gandhi realised that the poor would suffer whether alcohol was freely available or restricted.
"Gandhiji has clearly mentioned in his writings in Harijan, 'to protect the poor from the evils of liquor it is necessary to have controls over the accessibility of alcohol'," he said.
When Vyas’ attention was drawn to a comment that Gujarat by making prohibition into a law was subverting Gandhi as he insisted on abstinence as a personal moral code, he agreed to what Gandhian scholars have said.
"I would say what Gandhian scholars are saying is the most ideal," said Vyas.
However, he agreed with Tushar Gandhi that Bapu stood for many other things which should be practiced and which aren't.
"There are issues where you have to emulate Bapu and his ideas. But it doesn't mean wherever you are able to do that, it should be given to the wind," he said.
Law hand-in-glove with the outlaws
The illicit liquor was supplied by mafia gang, which regularly paid off policemen. It was a case of complete connivance on the part of lower administration and the police in this illegal trade.
Vyas disagreed that the blame was only of the administration and said there are other factors responsible for the incident. He said those behind the cause of this incident should be punished.
"We must go to the root of cause of the tragedy. Whoever is connected and responsible must be exposed and punished," he said.
He further endorsed Tushar Gandhi's statement on conducting a survey with the wives of those who have died in the tragedy. He said they would surely side with prohibition.
Tushar Gandhi advocated that by making alcohol consumption legal the poor would suffer. When asked if it implied the poor do not have a sense of conscience, and if liquor was available they would all become alcoholics, Tushar replied that alcohol abuse in Gujarat was at the highest ever. He also said it's unfair to blame the lower administration and police for the incident.
"In Gujarat every politician, every administrator concerned with excise and prohibition department; and every policemen from the top to the lowest level is being financed by this trade," he said.
However, he still disagreed with scrapping prohibition and cited the example of Mumbai bars. He said though alcohol consumption was permitted in Mumbai, labourers still resort to cheap illicit liquor.
"How many of labourers would be able to go to bars and drink even if prohibition is lifted," he demanded.
Hinduja intervened saying that after the anger had subsided, the wives of those who have died in the tragedy would agree that their husbands had consumed legal liquor.
"This is going to continue. There will always be a demand of alcohol in Gujarat and alcohol will always be consumed in Gujarat," he said.
He further said that being born and brought up in Gujarat he knows for a fact that every pro-prohibitionist drinks. "This hypocrisy has become a part of our culture," he said.
Alcohol consumption is a matter of individual conscience. People exercise choice and prohibition will lead to such tragedies in the future. Drinking is an evil that is preached but later breached as well in practice.
FINAL SMS POLL: Should prohibition in Gujarat be scrapped?
Yes: 62 per cent
No: 38 per cent