By Ratnadip Choudhury
James Pachuau, 23, takes out his Royal Enfield motorcycle every late afternoon and zips down the roads of Mizoram’s capital Aizawl, towards Lengpui on the outskirts, where the state has its lone airport. He parks his bike with several others lined up on the roadside. Hundreds of Mizo youth in their 20s and 30s are gathering in front of a group of shacks where Zu, Mizoram’s locally brewed liquor, is sold. Bootleggers hover around, making discreet deals for foreign liquor, sold at three times the MRP and often spurious. They earn in lakhs and it is anybody’s guess that they cannot be operating without taking Excise Department officials and policemen into confidence.
It’s an everyday affair in a state where alcohol has been banned for the past 17 years. And in this period, more than 1,700 people have been treated for alcoholism by the Department of Psychiatry of the Aizawl Civil Hospital. Worse, at least 70 people have died after consuming spurious liquor.
“The world is changing fast and Mizoram cannot be immune to change,” says James. “The booze ban has done no good. You can get any IMFL (Indian-Made Foreign Liquor) brand from the black market if you can pay for it. And if you can’t afford it, you can always go for the cheaper Zu. The problem is, you can’t be sure of the quality and many have died because of spurious liquor.”
Zu is often adulterated with methyl alcohol, which makes it toxic. Moreover, an investigation by the Department of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology at the Aizawl Civil Hospital found that a kind of yeast called BEDC, found in plenty in Myanmar and smuggled into Mizoram, is used in making spurious liquor that resembles IMFL.
“The locals usually brew the liquor in jungles and under unhygienic conditions since it is illegal,” says Lalringthanga, an engineering student from Mamit district.
However, all this could change in a few months. On 10 July, the Legislative Assembly passed the Mizoram Liquor Prohibition and Control (MLPC) Bill, which will replace the existing Mizoram Liquor Total Prohibition (MLTP) Act, 1995. This move comes after nearly half-a-decade of debate in the state over the pros and cons of prohibition.
The new law, however, does not lift the ban on alcohol totally. “It is a modification of the earlier Act and incorporates a system of proper checks,” says Mizoram’s Excise and Narcotics Minister R Lalzirliana. “The previous Act did not yield the desired results and so it had to be modified.”
In effect since 1997, the MLTP Act was legislated after the Presbyterian Church, the largest denomination in Christian-dominated Mizoram, came out with an assessment in 1994 that 65 percent of the women in the state were losing their husbands to alcohol abuse. The powerful Church, whose followers account for nearly half of Mizoram’s population of 1 million, prevailed upon the government to get prohibition imposed in the state.
Even now, the Presbyterian Church and the Baptist Church are dead against any change in the 1995 law. “Total prohibition has been beneficial in ridding Mizo society of various social evils. The Church has played a pivotal role in creating awareness against alcoholism and has organised many special drives against it. It has also been involved in rehabilitation programmes. We are against any change in the 1995 Act as it would make people more prone to alcoholism. The state is already plagued by widespread drug abuse,” says Robert Halliday of the Mizoram Presbyterian Synod. “We have organised mass prayers against the lifting of prohibition and will continue to oppose any change in the law.”
But they failed to stop the Mizoram Assembly from passing the new law. Prominent civil society organisations stayed away from the protests called by the Church. Perhaps, this signals a slackening of the Church’s influence on the state’s politics and civil society. While civil society organisations in the state had once stood with the Church on the prohibition issue, there has been a significant change in their stance over the years. Now, most of them are in favour of allowing people in the state to have good-quality liquor at reasonable prices. They want the focus to shift from total prohibition to efforts at controlling alcohol abuse.
It seems the spurt in cases of alcoholism and drug abuse made the state government take a fresh look at whether total prohibition was serving the intended purpose. According to state health department records, the number of alcoholics who were treated in government hospitals in the period from 1988 to 1996 — i.e., before prohibition was enforced — was 482. Ironically, during 2002-11, when prohibition was in place, 1,686 alcoholics were being treated with serious ailments. Similarly, in the period 1992-96, before total prohibition was imposed, 282 cases of liver disorders related to alcohol consumption were reported from government hospitals. The situation did not improve after prohibition, with 520 such cases reported during 2007-11. It was clear from the figures that prohibition had failed to control alcohol abuse.
This led to the formation of a special study group with the help of the Department of Psychology of Mizoram University in January 2011. The group led by H Raltawna, a retired IAS officer, undertook an exhaustive study and submitted its report in January 2012, advocating a change in the 1995 Act.
“The state saw a rapid rise in addiction to narcotics in the 17 years of prohibition. At the same time, spurious alcohol has caused deaths and disease. The bootleggers ruled the roost. Liquor was smuggled in from Assam and Tripura and sold at exorbitant prices in Mizoram. With this new law, the government claims that the checks will be far better,” says Laldingliana Sailo, a retired Indian Information Service officer now based in Aizawl.
The government is now looking at framing rules under the new Act to control alcohol abuse even as manufacture and sale of liquor is permitted. It is also mulling over what penalties to impose on those who break the rules.
The history of prohibition in Mizoram dates back to the time when it was not a separate state; it was then known as the Lushai Hills district and was a part of Assam. It was declared a Union Territory in 1972 and turned into a full-fledged state in 1987 following a peace accord between the Centre and the Mizo National Front (MNF). In 1964, the Centre had offered to compensate the states for up to 50 percent of the excise revenue lost due to prohibition. In 1977, Mizoram was among the 14 states and Union Territories that became part of the All India Prohibition Council set up by the then Morarji Desai government.
According to Halliday, the Church wants a “pure society” and, therefore, has always considered prohibition to be non-negotiable. “The Presbyterian Church alone has over 6 lakh followers in Mizoram, and we do have the power to raise social consciousness on the issue,” he says. “But we don’t want to be party to the politics of prohibition in which the government has got trapped. The government needs to acknowledge that it has failed completely in implementing the 1995 Act, we would like to complement its efforts.”
Indeed, the Church has all along played a significant role in efforts to enforce the ban on alcohol. Civil society organisations, too, have been keeping a watch on alcoholism at the local level and raising awareness against it. They have also targeted drug abuse and helped to keep it under check to a certain extent.
“Yet, the fact remains that Mizoram is a hub of narcotics,” says Lalhmachhuana, president of Mizo Zirlai Pawl, the influential Mizo students’ association. “For decades, the Myanmar border has served as a transit route for international drug smuggling. Narcotics is smuggled into India through this route and now the Mizo youths are also falling prey to drug addiction. On the other side of the border in Myanmar, there are many warlords and insurgent groups that are involved in international narcotics smuggling. The Central government has never taken it seriously. We will soon need a separate narcotics law for our state. As for alcohol prohibition, you will find that many Excise Department officials and policemen, who are supposed to ensure its success, have themselves became alcoholics. Many of them have gone for rehab.”
Over the years, the failure of the government machinery to enforce prohibition has led to the emergence of vigilante groups that use highhanded methods to deal with alcoholics. But the influential Young Mizo Association (YMA), which has been at the forefront of long-drawn anti-alcohol campaigns, now wants a change in the law. “We have serious issues with both the 1995 law and the new one, and have already written to the government about it,” says YMA president Lalbiakzuala. “The older law could have been successful had the government been strict about implementing it. We are not sure of the new law. It will be an acid test for the government. But our mandate is clear. We will continue to act as a watchdog and our local units will try to keep a tight leash on tipplers. And the sale of spurious liquor has to be curbed.”
With the new law, the government expects that revenue will increase by around Rs 30 crore. It also feels that the move would give a big boost to vineyard cultivators in the state. A few years ago, when the government permitted wineries to operate in the Hnahlan and Champai areas, the wine brewed in the state found a ready market outside. In fact, grape orchards and winebrewing provided a means of sustainable livelihood to locals in these areas. Mizoram produces 21,000 tonnes of fine-quality grapes every year and the new law would allow the bulk of it to be used in breweries and bring in more revenue.
“But revenue is not the key issue,” says minister Lalzirliana. “We admit that spurious liquor has taken a toll and we want to control that. And in no way are we lifting the ban totally, we are only relaxing it with many riders.”
However, the main Opposition party in the state, the MNF, is firmly opposed to the idea of lifting prohibition. It has always taken a hard line on this issue and has stood with the Church. Chances are that if the new law fails, the MNF will be quick to use it for launching a big political attack against the Congress government led by Chief Minister Lal Thanhawla. On the other hand, if the law is seen to be effective in curbing spurious liquor and rampant alcoholism, Lal Thanhawla would be one step ahead of both the MNF and the Church.