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Lacking all-India horizon, Anna's anti-liquor ‘protest’ smacked of political bias

By Bharat Dogra* 

As widely reported, the veteran activist Anna Hazare has withdrawn his fast scheduled to start on February 14 -- at least for the time being. Earlier he had stated that he will be starting a fast on February 14 if the Maharashtra Government does not take back its recent decisions aimed at increasing liquor sales.
On January 27 the Maha Vikas Aghadi government decided to allow the sale of wine at supermarkets and walk-in stores with an area over 100 square feet. On February 9 Anna Hazare said that he had already written two letters to the chief minister asking him to take back this decision but he had not yet received any response.
However, soon after this this officials contacted him to inform that the government will first take this issue widely among citizens for their viewpoint, and only after getting their opinion will the government take any final decision. Keeping in view this assurance of the government, Anna has adopted a wait and watch policy for some time.
However, this is not just an issue of Maharashtra. In most states governments are trying to increase excise receipts by opening more and more liquor vends. In addition they are taking other steps to increase liquor availability. Hence Anna should think in terms of national level demands and movement. Secondly being elderly and fragile he should avoid a fast and instead prepare for a long drawn movement as well as campaign to check increasing liquor consumption.
Soon after the Maharashtra government had announced its decision on January 27, it was reported that this will result in significant increase of wine consumption. Hence the concerns of Anna Hazare can be understood. It is well-known that alcohol consumption is responsible for 3 million deaths in a year in world, nearly one-sixth of these in India.
In addition increase of consumption of alcohol in India has been linked to more crimes and violence almost all over India, particularly to physical and sexual violence against women. Millions of households have sunk deeper into poverty as a result of increasing alcohol consumption, and accidents have increased.
As all this has happened at all-India level, the concerns of such a nationally well-known activist like Anna Hazare should have an all-India context and should not be confined to increase of alcohol consumption in Maharashtra alone. The kind of changes being made in Maharashtra to increase alcohol consumption have been reported in several other parts of India also.
In fact when BJP leaders in Maharashtra criticised the Maharashtra government’s recent decision, the ruling parties there responded that a state ruled by the BJP, Madhya Pradesh, has recently taken even more sweeping decisions to increase liquor consumption!
A report by News 18 titled ‘Liquor: Big Discounts, Wine in Supermarkets, Price Drop’ summarised some recent changes. Regarding Madhya Pradesh this report stated that liquor sales will be allowed in supermarkets in four leading cities and those with Rs. one crore income will get private bar sanction. This report said that in Kolkata also measures have been taken to make available chaper liquor.
Anna Hazare should also be concerned about what his own former disciples now in power in Delhi have been doing in the capital of India. The News 18 review has pointed out that alcohol has been made hugely cheaper in Delhi after implementation of a new rule to privatise liquor vendors and allowing them to offer discounts on the retail price. The number of dry days has been reduced.
The “Economic Times” reported that the Delhi government’s new excise policy has decided to open liquor shops in non-conforming areas (in practice this generally implies opening more liquor vends in unauthorised colonies closer to the homes of working class people and poorer households, making it much easier for them to buy liquor close to their home).
Earlier on June 11, 2021 the “Mint” reported that changes in Delhi alcohol rules are being welcomed by tipplers. This report stated that with 18 out of 21 amendments in action, residents of Delhi can place orders for alcohol via website and mobile apps for home delivery. This report stated that restaurants and pubs will be allowed to serve booze in open spaces and even source brews directly from microbrewers.
Another report in “Mint” on July 6 mentioned further measures to promote liquor consumption in Delhi including extension of bar timings, encouragement to microbrewers and discounts. An even earlier report from the city mentioned ( as an achievement of the government!) the increase ease in getting permission for serving alcohol at weddings and similar functions.
A very recent report in the Mint dated January 31, 2022 stated that following Maharashtra decision to sell wine in supermarkets and walk-in shops, the Karnataka government may become the next government to take a similar decision. This report quoted the Excise Minister of Karnataka as stating that the state will be sending a delegation to Maharashtra to learn from the experience there before taking a final decision!
In Himachal Pradesh the highly nutritious fruit apple is being used to make wine on a significant scale, and there have been media reports of even using other fruits and medicinal tea leaves to turn them into raw material for wine. Apple wine and fruit wine are being sold in general shops and groceries.
A state ruled by the BJP, Madhya Pradesh, has recently taken even more sweeping decisions to increase liquor consumption
Hence, efforts to increase liquor consumption have spread to many state governments and so Anna Hazare should have an All-India focus in his movement. This will also help him to rise above the criticism that his movements often serve the agenda of right-wing forces including the BJP and the Sangh Parivar, as happened at the time of the Lokpal agitation. As time has shown, this hardly achieved anything important for the people but helped the political interests of right-wing forces.
So this time Anna should be impartial in targeting all governments which have been promoting liquor consumption, without any political bias, and he should not hesitate to ask his former disciples some difficult questions in this context. In addition he must also ask the union government to be more generous in meeting urgent fund requirements of state governments so that they do not become too dependent on revenue from liquor sales, as has been happening in recent times.
As this issue has heated up some politicians have even argued that wine is not liquor. This mistaken notion should be quickly corrected.The alcohol content in wine including red wine is two to six times higher than in beer, more generally it is about three times higher. The alcohol content of red wine ranges from 8 to 18 per cent. The alcohol content of beer ranges generally from 2 to 9 per cent, it is more commonly 4 to 5 per cent.
To make a further distinction, the alcohol content of wines ranges from 8 to 14 per cent while the alcohol content of fortified wines ranges from 16 to 22 per cent. When the alcohol content of wines is so much higher than beer ( and of course it is the same ethyl alcohol) then of course it follows that people can get more easily drunk on wine and also that this can be more addictive.
“The Telegraph” (UK) reported on December 1, 2014 in a news item titled “Drinking a glass of wine is the same as downing three shots of Vodka” --“Enjoying a glass of wine after work does the same harm as downing three shots of vodka , the head of Public Health England has warned as he said alcohol was becoming the silent killer of working class Britons.”
In the recent debate some politicians also related wine consumption increase to helping farmers which again is completely false. In fact increase in wine and liquor consumption has led to diversion of scarce water away from farmers. Apart from serious health hazards various aspects of making wine are associated with heavy eco-costs. The Economist reported some time back that it takes 960 liters of water to make a single liter of wine (based on data from Water Footprints Network).
“Decanter” magazine pointed out in a review of the eco-costs of the wine industry, “Synthetic fungicides, herbicides and fertilizers, non-degradable materials and environmentally harmful have been integral to the cultivation, packaging and transportation of wine.”
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*Honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now; recent books include “Man over Machine (Gandhian Ideas for Our Times)” and “Protecting Earth For Children”

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