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More Indian states are banning liquor, though that hasn't stopped the drinking

More Indian states are banning liquor, though that hasn't stopped the drinking
Customers at a microbrewery in Bangalore. (Manjunath Kiran / AFP / Getty Images)

They are a common sight even well before noon: groups of men huddled around plastic tabletops at canteens along the highway north of Mumbai, guzzling beers.

Then they get back in their cars and drive on for a few miles into Gujarat, an Indian state where alcohol is prohibited.

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As the beer-soaked travelers near the Gujarat state line demonstrate, it is difficult to get determined tipplers to stop drinking in India. Yet a growing number of states are clamping down on the consumption of booze in an effort to stop social ills officials say come with it.

The southern state of Tamil Nadu this month became the latest to impose at least a partial ban on alcohol, with recently reelected chief minister J. Jayalalithaa closing 500 state-run liquor shops this week and restricting the operating hours of others.

The closures represented just 7% of the estimated 7,000 such stores in the state, but more could follow. Jayalalithaa made phasing out the sale of alcohol a campaign promise and blamed her rival party for lifting the state's prohibition laws in 1971.

One-fifth of India’s 1.2 billion people live in states where alcohol consumption is banned or restricted.


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Three other major states have similar laws, meaning about one-fifth of India's 1.2 billion people live in places where alcohol consumption is banned or restricted.

The trend toward prohibition in India has cheered many women's rights groups, who say alcohol abuse contributes to domestic violence and plunges poor families deeper into penury.

In April, Bihar, an economically depressed northern state with 100 million people, implemented a total ban on alcohol. In raids, police seized nearly 4,000 gallons of locally made liquor and arrested more than 1,300 people.

The state's chief minister, Nitish Kumar, shrugged off reports that the policy would cost the state more than $900 million in annual revenues.

"I feel this is the right time for social change in Bihar," Kumar said. "People will now use the money invested in liquor to add nutrition to their plates, avoid disease and economic ruination."

In socially conservative Bihar, experts say Kumar's policies have widespread support among both men and women.

"There is not much liquor culture in Bihar," said Shaibal Gupta, a social scientist in Patna, the state capital. If such an idea were proposed in Punjab, a northern state near the Pakistani border known for big drinkers and flamboyant partying, "the government would fall," Gupta said.

But there are reports that shacks selling booze have sprung up just over the lightly policed border in Nepal, where it is easy for Bihar residents to cross over and have a drink. Seventy Indians were reportedly arrested and fined by Nepalese authorities last week for patronizing the illegal establishments.

The policies have made alcohol sales a rare soft spot in India's booming economy. Alcohol sales nationwide of 5.1 billion liters were flat in 2015 after several years of growth of 5% or higher, according to the market research group Euromonitor International.

"Looking at 2016, with two states having already implemented whole or partial bans, this is going to be another low year for the alcohol industry," said Euromonitor analyst Sanjeev Raikar.

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Since achieving independence from Britain in 1947, India has gone through periodic phases of teetotaling. Alcohol was banned from 1949 to 1963 in the western state of Maharashtra, which includes the commercial capital, Mumbai.

Just like in the United States in the 1920s, prohibition gave rise to a huge underworld business. Bootleggers set up brewing operations in swampy slums, and organized crime networks grew out of the trade in illicit hooch.

Even years after the ban was lifted, the crime syndicates continued to operate, having moved on to more dangerous work.

"The massive profits from the illicit liquor trade would act as the launchpad for a parallel economy with tentacles in everything from prostitution and gambling to Bollywood and, eventually, gun-running and terror," Riddhi Doshi wrote recently in the Hindustan Times.

In Gujarat, which has been a dry state since its inception in 1960, small local suppliers and bootleggers do a brisk business, often with a wink and a nod from local authorities. The living room cupboards of upper-middle-class households are so well stocked with imported whiskey, gin and vodka that Gujaratis are often described as India's heaviest closet drinkers.

"Alcohol in Gujarat is merely a phone call away," said Ghanshyam Shah, a sociologist in the state capital, Ahmedabad. "Bootleggers and police work hand-in-glove. It is a very lucrative black market. Plus, politicians also get their cut."

Illicit brews are common, too – and dangerous. In one case in 2009, 136 people died in Gujarat from drinking spurious booze. Last year, Babubhai Patel, an activist and addiction specialist, dropped pouches containing alcohol from the visitor's gallery of the state assembly chamber to demonstrate how easy it was to obtain liquor.

In the sparsely populated northeastern state of Nagaland, where prohibition was enacted in 1989, alcohol smuggled across state lines is common. The interstate trade caused two other northeastern states, Manipur and Mizoram, to repeal prohibition last year, saying it had failed.

In Kerala, a seaside state popular with tourists, sale of liquor is restricted mainly to five-star hotels, although beer and wine remain legal. The state has among India's highest rates of alcohol consumption, collecting $1.2 billion – about one-fifth of its revenue – from alcohol taxes and fees in 2013, before the ban was implemented.

The mixed results have prompted many experts to question the wisdom of prohibition laws as a solution to violence.

"There are many people who commit domestic abuse even without getting drunk," Shah said. "Focusing on gender sensitization and rational thinking would bring down domestic violence. A liquor ban alone cannot ensure that."

Parth M.N. is a special correspondent.

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