India is high on dry days — quite literally. October alone will have about four-five liquor-less days (even if people can stock for the dates under question or just take the back door to the country’s watering holes) depending on which part of the country you live in, while the world celebrates its biggest beer festival. With Gandhi Jayanti, Valmiki Jayanti, Dussehra and Diwali lined up, all celebrations are expected to happen without a toast being raised. This, of course, applies only to those who haven’t yet found a way to circumvent the rule of law when it comes laying a hand on the bottle.
The year 2019 has had a particularly high number of dry days given the restrictions on the sale of alcohol during the seven-phase national elections. But the concept of dry days is not unique to India. Dry days are technically a way of putting a limitation on alcohol trade in countries that once aimed to implement total prohibition, but couldn’t.
The earliest sign of introducing such restrictions on alcohol trade in the global sense are seen in the Code of Hammurabi set in the 2nd Century BC. Under this code, beer could not be sold for money but was bartered for barley.
The Nordic countries and North America saw an impetus for prohibition backed by the pietistic Protestants, who viewed alcohol as a moral hazard. Health concerns helped back the moral argument.
Much like Bihar, prohibition movements in the West were widely supported by women. The movements in the West coincided with the advent of women’s suffrage, with newly empowered women as part of the political process supporting policies that curbed alcohol consumption.
The temperance movement in the US ensured prohibition in the country from 1920 to 1933. The implementation, however, remained unsuccessful. The policy started losing support around 1929 during Great Depression. Much of the groundwork for the repealing of prohibition was done through the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment (AAPA). Established in 1918, the AAPA worked to elect Congressmen who agreed to support repeal. On December 5, 1933, prohibition was lifted through the 21st Amendment.
Norway, Finland and Sweden have all had relatively restrictive systems for controlling the sale of alcoholic beverages during this century. Both Finland and Norway experienced an era of prohibition — in Finland it lasted from 1920 to 1933. Sweden narrowly missed prohibition in a nationwide referendum.
But all these countries continue to have dry days and dry areas as a residual impact of the temperance movement, much like the hangover after a drunk night.
Thailand, New Zealand and Canada are just some of the other countries that have dry days. And no matter where you are planning to drink in the world, unless you are in a country or state where alcohol is banned, a dry day only means you can’t buy it over the counter. If you have stocked up, you can very well drink.
What’s unique to India
While dry days aren’t a concept unique to India, the number of such days is higher due to two main reasons — a staggeringly high number of religious festivals — with 33 crore gods in Hinduism and all religions being promised equal treatment (even on the question of dry days), and a commitment made towards prohibition under the directive principles of state policy.
Mahatma Gandhi was a strong proponent of total prohibition. Temperance thus became part of the agenda of the Indian National Congress ambling its way in the Constitution among the directive principles (Article 36 to Article 51).
Article 47 of the Constitution says: “The state shall regard the raising of the level of nutrition and standard of living of its people as among its primary duties and in particular, the state shall endeavour to bring about prohibition of the use except for medicinal purposes of intoxicating drinks and of drugs which are injurious to health.”
The whole debate around the money earned by the state by way of tariffs and taxes levied on liquor trade was answered by Gandhi thus: “I venture to suggest to you that it is a matter of deep humiliation for the country to find its children educated from drink revenue. We shall deserve the curse of posterity if we so not wisely decide to stop the drink evil, even though we may have to sacrifice the education of our children.”
The symbolic push for prohibition has been so strong that October 2 is not just a dry day in India, but has been recognised as World No Alcohol Day since 2008.
But India’s attempts to ban the ‘drink evil’ failed much like they failed in the US; with black markets assuming a life of their own, trading in mostly spurious liquor and smuggling becoming rampant.
Taking Gandhi’s fight against ‘drink revenue’, the Janata Party government led by Prime Minister Morarji Desai formed a national policy on prohibition, pushing it from 1977 to 1980. But the policy could hardly be implemented in states beyond the political strongholds of the party.
As of today, only six states/union territories are ‘dry’: Mizoram, Nagaland, Manipur, Gujarat, Lakshadweep and Bihar. Andhra Pradesh is moving in that direction with the government taking over 3,500 wine shops from October 1. In September, the Andhra government announced that the number of liquor outlets will be reduced from 4,380 to 3,500 and will be eventually phased out.
Even though the state is not bound by the directive principles, states face a moral dilemma in not curtailing alcohol sale and consumption. Dry days are their middle path traversing between a drinking drought and a drinking deluge.
Consumption of alcoholic beverages by Indian consumers predates British colonisation and has often been suppressed by taxes and other restrictive policies. According to the World Health Organisation, India is the fastest growing market for alcoholic beverages. Restrictive policies at the federal and state levels are often carried out under the concern that alcoholic beverages should be heavily regulated to prevent public health and safety issues related to drinking.
Dry days are just one of the many ways in which the state is trying to control consumption. While there is no empirical evidence to prove it, even non-regular drinkers are pretty high on the idea of drinking on otherwise no-alcohol days. Probably because of the reverse psychology that governs the minds of people and just the thrill of doing something 'banned'.
Dry days are thus mostly about a ban on the (legal) sale of alcohol even as the consumption goes on unabated.