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Prohibition in Manipur

Deliberations over its 'Dry State' Status

Richard Kamei (jenpuna@gmail.com) is at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai​.

The state government’s inability to effectively enforce liquor prohibition in Manipur over the last two decades and its need for additional revenue has compelled it to mull over the option to lift the ban on alcohol in the state. 

Lifting of the 17-year-old prohibition on alcohol in Mizoram, and the decision of the Kerala government to implement a phased ban on alcohol in the state in recent months, has brought the issue of prohibition in the limelight. The former move is seen as a step towards curbing illicit liquor production and consumption and generation of revenue for the state, while the latter is seen as a move to gradually curb the selling and consumption of alcohol.  Both these states are ruled by the Congress party. The issue of prohibition has come up for discussion in yet another Congress ruled state, with Manipur recently signalling that it will reconsider its stance on prohibition, which has been in place since 1991.

In July 2014, Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh stated in the Manipur state assembly that the state government was looking at the option of lifting prohibition in the state. He also suggested that the country liquor produced in Manipur could be sold in other states, and he sought support across  political parties to implement the proposed plan. Voicing his opinion in the assembly, the opposition member Th. Shyamkumar of All India Trinamool Congress emphasised  the easy availability of local liquor and its huge consumption along with that of Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL), which was thriving in the state despite its dry state status.[i] He supported the chief minister’s proposal by stating that prohibition needs to be lifted, and the focus should be  on producing quality country liquor to be sold to other states to strengthen the state economy.

Both the ruling and the opposition party seemed to be on the same platform in regard to revoking the dry state status of Manipur. The ruling party’s intention has spurred a debate on the liquor policy in Manipur, and the participants range from members of Meira Paibi – a women’s movement – to other civil society organisations to people who brew and sell country liquor.           

The decade prior to the declaration of Manipur as a dry state in 1991 witnessed   strong anti-liquor campaigns by various civil society organisations. Meira Paibis spearheaded the movement to stop sale and consumption of alcohol. The objective of the anti-alcohol movement was to curb social evils like domestic violence resulting from alcoholism. With the passing of the Liquor Prohibition Act in 1991, Manipur officially became a “dry state”, with an exemption granted to scheduled caste (SC) and scheduled tribe (ST) communities to brew liquor for traditional purposes.[ii] The excise department was given the task to regulate and implement the prohibition.

Thriving Alcohol Business

The alcohol business has thrived in Manipur irrespective of its dry state status in the last two decades.  Despite crackdowns by the excise department and vigilantism practised by civil society groups, alcohol is freely available in the black market. Other than locally brewed alcohol, which is easily available, IMFL can be sourced from several places, including canteens of Assam Rifles and Manipur Rifles.[iii] Foreign-made liquor is also smuggled into Manipur from bordering states and from Myanmar via Tamu.[iv]     

The indigenous alcohol industry – the main source of country liquor – provides employment to many people. Interestingly, women are actively involved in this industry. Illiteracy, lack of access to health services, and poverty are some of the main reasons why they have taken to brewing alcohol.  This occupation is an age old one and is integral to their culture, custom and tradition. A local from Namthanlong village in Imphal narrated that the tradition of selling alcohol spanned several decades and narrated an account where British, Japanese and Indian soldiers came by to drink country liquor there during the Second World War. 

For ST and SC communities, brewing liquor is to do with upholding their customs and traditions, and they are allowed to do so under the 1991 Prohibition Act. But most of them are selling liquor illicitly to make ends meet, as they have no alternative livelihood options to bank upon. The skills they possess – of weaving cloth, rearing cattles/pig etc – do not provide them with means to support their family. They are used to crackdowns and raids by the excise department and civil society organisations.

Country liquor, which is made from rice, is popular among customers because of its quality and affordability. However, the younger generation prefers IMFL to country liquor. The reason for this shift could be attributed to rising prosperity and exposure to drinking cultures prevalent in other parts of India and the world. The rising demand for IMFL has led to an increase in its smuggling from adjoining states – Assam and Meghalaya – and across the border from Myanmar to Manipur. The government is toying with the proposal of lifting prohibition in the state because of two reasons – one, it is unable to enforce prohibition and two, there is an urgent need to expand the state’s economy.  So far the sale of IMFL has not been made legal in Manipur due to the strong opposition voiced by many civil society organisations. Exercising vigilante justice, these organisations have resorted to punishing both the vendors and consumers of alcohol. It was chiefly the civil society’s anti-alcohol drive which was instrumental in passing of the Prohibition Act by the state in 1991.

Local response

Many locals in Namthanlong village, Imphal voiced their opinions about lifting of prohibition and issuance of licenses to sell IMFL in Manipur. Many believed that this move would result in opening of wine shops and possibly bars in the state. They maintained that if this proposal came into effect, the indigenous alcohol industry will be affected negatively. They held that the demand for country liquor would dwindle eventually leading to a steep decline in its sale. The state government’s assurance of exporting country liquor to other states finds no takers among the locals; they asserted that with youth preferring IMFL over country liquor, the proposed market for country liquor is just lip-service. They were skeptical about the government’s assurance that employment would be generated with export of the local brew to other states in the country.

However, a few people believed that introduction of IMFL would have little effect on the indigenous alcohol industry as country liquor caters to a different set of customers. There were also a few who opined that the civil society organisations like Meira Paibis, which are very strong in the state, will be vehemently opposed to the proposal of introducing IMFLs and lifting of prohibition and would ensure that the government does not take such a step.

Before the state government takes concrete steps to revoke the dry state status of Manipur, it should thoroughly analyse the pro and cons of such a move keeping in mind the ground realities which exist in the state.

Notes

[i] Discussions over lifting 'dry state status' were carried out in the state assembly in context of the need to expand state economy, and to bolster the local liquor market, available at http://www.tntmagazine.in/manipur-might-have-counter-liquor-boom-ahead/, accessed on 30 December 2014. 

[ii] Despite prohibition, liquor is easily available in Sekmai, Andro and any Rongmei (Kabui) village, available at http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/looking-for-a-peg/, accessed on 30 December 2014. 

[iii] The availability of IMFLs in Manipur is mainly confined in the canteens of Manipur Rifles and Assam Rifles, available at http://www.thesangaiexpress.com/page/items/41039/liquor-licence-system-on-govt-agenda-says-ibobi, accessed on 30 December 2014.

[iv] IMFLs illegally brought into Manipur are mostly concealed under goods, making it easier to evade the checking at borders, available at http://www.telegraphindia.com/1120104/jsp/northeast/story_14957725.jsp#.VIIBGTGUcmQ, accessed on 30 December 2014. 

 

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