Adi Godrej has done well to speak out against the ban on cattle slaughter and imposition of prohibition by certain state governments in the past one year. Such policies, the chairman of the $4 billion-plus Godrej Group has rightly pointed out, have contributed to an overall environment of negativity, deflecting and diverting attention away from the economy and the larger development agenda that governments are elected to implement. The cattle slaughter ban legislation passed by Maharashtra and Haryana last year clearly targeted a community many of whose members are engaged in the beef trade. Moreover, the ban on consumption of beef and slaughter of even non-milking cows, male calves, bulls or bullocks has hurt farmers. In times of drought, especially of the scale that Maharashtra has witnessed for two years now, farmers find it difficult to maintain cattle. By killing the market for such animals — which is what cattle traders and abattoir owners essentially provided — the BJP-led government has only added to the woes of farmers in Maharashtra.
To the extent that the demand for prohibition is seen to come mainly from women of less privileged backgrounds who are often victims of alcohol-related violence, it can even be seen as serving a legitimate public good. But the arguments against prohibition are compelling. They range from those that question it for offering a “moral” solution to a public health problem, and as an encroachment by the state on individual freedoms, to those that point out that it is ineffective and counter-productive. An outright ban on consumption and trade in liquor can, indeed, lead to worse results from the entire business going underground. If the end result is the emergence of a new police-administration-criminal nexus, along with smuggling from across the border and sale of spurious liquor, the damage to public interest may be more than collateral. Also, the desperately addicted may still get their liquor, albeit at a higher price and consuming a larger share of household income. Finally, there is the issue of revenue. Last year, states together grossed over Rs 1,00,000 crore from alcohol. That includes Rs 4,000 crore for Bihar (which under Nitish Kumar has already imposed prohibition) and Rs 8,000 crore for Tamil Nadu (where virtually every party has promised it in the current assembly elections). The revenue foregone would obviously have to be compensated through higher taxes, including on essential goods and services. Again, that leaves families worse off than before.
Godrej’s forthright observations should be viewed as a call for restoring sobriety in public policymaking. This is as much about bringing the focus back on governance and development as it is about avoiding actions that ultimately serve to only divide the people, or to create new problems in the guise of solving the old.