ALCOHOL BAN DURING PANDEMIC: LEGALITY AND PRACTICALITY IN INDIA – By SOHINI BISWAS

INTRODUCTION

In an attempt to flatten the curve, the State and the Central Governments of India instigated a total lockdown across the country. One of the unfortunate outcomes of the total lockdown was problems relating to alcohol consumption where people who were dependent on alcohol were going into withdrawal and in extreme cases due to the non-availability of the same, suicide cases increased. There is a dilemma of health, psychology and law directly related to the alcohol ban during a pandemic.

ABOUT COVID -19

On 11th February 2020, the coronavirus disease was named COVID-19 after the World Health Organization (WHO) found a cluster of cases in Wuhan, China on the last day of 2019. After the virus was detected in many parts of the world and due to its increasing spread, WHO declared the global COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. The first case of the virus was detected in India after a girl flew back home to Kerala from Wuhan. In spite of implementing efforts to contain the disease, such as suspending international travel, medical screenings etc., cases cross the country gradually increased and the Central Government declared a country wide total lockdown.

INTERVENTION ON ALCOHOL

In India, ever since the country opened up its economy there has been an increase in alcohol consumption and subsequent alcohol related problems. Alcohol use disorder is prevalent is half of the country’s male drinkers. Makes sense that in the first week the nation went into lockdown, the searches on ‘how to make alcohol at home’ was at its peak. Kerala was the first of the States to be effective in flattening the curve. In fact, the State declared alcohol as ‘essential goods’ and therefore exempted it from the state level lockdown and green lit its continual sale at outlets. But when the nation wide lockdown was called, Kerala Government decided to shut it all down. But reports started pouring in that those who were regular drinkers were dying by suicide as they went into severe alcohol withdrawal as a result of frustration that they couldn’t get their hands on the beverage. Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome (AWS) occurs when there is an abrupt stop in consumption of alcohol by regular and constant drinkers. They tend to experience severe symptoms such as epileptic seizures and delirium tremens (DT). The high mortality rate of people experiencing these symptoms is troubling. The Kerala High Court decided to stay the State Government’s order to reopen limited outlets despite the aforementioned reports.

There has been a constant increase in black marketing of alcohol across the country. In the State of Telangana, the police were enlisted to restrict the illicitly distilled alcohol called Gudamba. In many parts of the country, illicitly brewed alcohol was being sold in hidden warehouses. At the height of everyone practicing self-isolation, the exacerbated anxiety and negative thinking can lead to substance abuse and even the people who are recovering can relapse who then turn to consumption of illicit alcohol.

LEGALITY OF THE BAN

In a report published by the RBI titled ‘State Finances: A Study of Budgets of 2019-2020’ showed that state excise duty on liquor contributes the highest amount to State own Tax Revenue. Aside from rising revenue, alcohol has been evidenced as a cause to many individual and societal problems. The National Commission of Women have recorded a rise in cases of domestic violence during the pandemic. In Association Medical Super Speciality Aspirants & Residents & Others vs. Union of India[i] the Supreme Court held that the State has an obligation to safeguard the right to life of every individual. The WHO report on public health showed increased consumption of alcohol during the pandemic is detrimental to the health of an individual and reduces their immunity level. In the case of Akhil Bharatiya Soshit Karamchari Sangh vs. Union of India[ii], the Supreme Court laid down maintenance and improvement of public health is of utmost importance for the physical existence of society.

On the hand, while it is understandable that medically recommended quarantine with regards to public health is appropriate, there is a debate on whether forcibly restricting alcohol on individuals who are dependent on it is considered to be on the grounds of public health or on the grounds of prohibitionist principles. Prohibition is an open invitation for illegal trade of alcohol and it is already flourishing as of now. Alcohol is not defined as essential goods, as the Essential Goods Commodities Act, 1955 provides ‘essential commodities‘ an all inclusive definition which means and includes any commodity in the list provided in the schedule to section 2(a) of the Act. And alcohol is not included in this list. The ban was imposed by the Central Government as per section 6 and section 10 of the Disaster Management Act 2005 and has therefore infringed on the Constitutional powers of the State to regulate the sale of alcohol. As a quasi-federal state, the Constitution entrusts the State with authority to ‘produce, manufacture, possess, transport, purchase and sell intoxicated liquors’ as per Entry 8 of List II (State List). Additionally, Entry 6 of List II provides State with powers with respect to public health. Only in the respect to “prevention of extension from one State to another of infectious or contagious diseases…” both the Central and State Governments have powers as per Entry 29 of List III (Concurrent List). It is argued that as per section 2(e) of the Disaster Management Act 2005, disaster management is already defined quite extensively and banning alcohol under the preface that it would help ‘mitigate, alleviate, rescue, relieve or rehabilitate’ from the pandemic is not one of them. And if the argument is that it will be, then it would really be asking beyond what the definition provides.

CONCLUSION

The challenge is to figure out how the alcohol outlets can be reopened without compromising on social distancing. Harm reduction principle is used to reduce the server impact of a behaviour and does not eliminate the behaviour entirely. And therefore, won’t work in the context of banning of alcohol. Again in 2020, the Supreme Court passed an order refusing to ban the sale of alcohol during the lockdown and instead suggested that the State Government should consider online sale or home delivery in order to maintain social distancing.

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