Aizawl city by night.
The shop (below) is in a building in one of the crowded market areas of Aizawl with nothing to advertise it to the outside world. But a steady stream of people are entering it, clutching what looks like a booklet in their hands. Inside, a policeman keeps an eye as the merchandise is handed over to customers while four cashiers behind two counters write down details of the purchases in the booklets or liquor cards. A customer can buy six bottles of IMFL (750ml) and 10 bottles each of wine and beer every month for their "personal bonafide consumption". Visitors from outside the state can make purchases by producing their Inner Line Permit.
Liquor card holders queue up at a wine shop in Aizawl.
The state assembly passed the Mizoram Liquor Prohibition and Control Act (MLPCA) in 2014 and it came into force from 15 January 2015, replacing the earlier Mizoram Liquor Total Prohibition Act (MLTPA). The first wine shop opened in Aizawl on 16 March 2015 and officials in the Excise & Narcotics Department (END) say they expect huge profits.
Mizoram shares its border with three states in the North East besides Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Three state-owned corporations have been chosen to operate retail outlets. There are private players too, but they face a challenge in finding a building owner willing to allow them to operate in the face of pressure from church bodies opposed to the lifting of prohibition. Picketing of wine shops by church volunteers has forced at least one private operator to shut shop. There are a total of 16 outlets all over the state, and the END has issued more than 52,000 liquor cards (at an annual fee of Rs 500).
A liquor card issued by the Excise and Narcotics Department.
Mizoram attained statehood on 20 February 1987 after the Mizo Accord was signed between the Mizo National Front (MNF) and the GoI in 1986. Pressure from civil society groups to control alcoholism led the government to enforce the MLTPA, 1995, from 20 February 1997, exactly a decade after Mizoram had become the 23rd state in the Indian Union. Amendments to the Act in 2007 and 2011 allowed fruits, especially grapes, to be turned into wine for sale by growers' societies.
All the while, IMFL and hooch continued to be available if you knew where to look, just like in Manipur and Nagaland where prohibition was in force as well. Rangvamual on the outskirts of Aizawl was one such area, with shanty houses populated by migrants from other parts of Mizoram and even Myanmar. Some houses sold hooch, as well as IMFL smuggled in from outside the state, and the trade continues. People still come down from Aizawl in the evenings to "RV", as it is commonly known, to buy hooch and IMFL.
Various brands of liquor being sold at a shop in Khawmawi village in Myanmar, just across the border from Zokhawthar in Mizoram.
In 2011, a Study Group on the MLTPA conducted a survey to find out whether total prohibition was helping the state, considering the easy availability of hooch and IMFL on the black market and the effect of the former on the health of drinkers. Hooch was increasingly being made from ethanol smuggled in from Myanmar. The survey concluded that a controlled environment for the distribution of liquor would work better. Hence limited opening hours (10am to 5pm), liquor cards with quotas, strict supervision from the END, and tighter implementation of laws. However, local newspapers have quoted ruling Congress party members as saying that if the lifting of prohibition doesn't work then they would recall the earlier Act, thus, in effect, hedging their bets.
According to END, between 1997 and 15 September 2014, 57 people died from the consumption of spurious liquor; a figure some say should be much higher. The survey also shows that there was a steep rise in cases of alcohol-related liver disease and psychiatric referrals for alcoholism during total prohibition. Opponents of the lifting of prohibition say it will lead to more money flowing out of Mizoram, while the local hooch sellers ensured that most of the money was kept in circulation within the state. So far, there hasn't been a marked decrease in the sale of hooch, probably because it is still cheaper than most legally-sold IMFL.
Zoramthanga, two-time ex-chief minister and the president of the MNF, says Mizo society is not yet ready for liquor to be sold openly. Vanlalruata, general secretary of the Central YMA (CYMA), makes the same point, adding that the government is not in a position to enforce strict controls on liquor sales. The enormously influential YMA or Young Mizo Association is a state-wide organisation of which every young Mizo is a member and remains one for life.
According to Professor Margaret Zama of Mizoram University, in the pre-Christian times, zu or rice beer was an integral part of Mizo society and a part of rituals conducted by chieftains. As conversion picked up pace, adherents of the new faith marked out prohibition as a way of curtailing consumption of zu and along with it the aura of the chieftain.
The Presbyterian Church, the largest denomination in Mizoram, is strongly opposed to the lifting of prohibition. Even if individual church members might support the government's stand, the powerful Church Synod is dead set against it. There are many though, like the school teachers from Aizawl, who say that people, especially the youth, need to have the freedom to make their own choices. "That's why some of our young people can't handle their freedom when they go outside the state, and end up making wrong decisions," he says.
Everything in the city of Aizawl revolves around community and the church. The shared Mizo tribal history also ensures there is a high degree of social cohesion. People do have their own opinions but see the wisdom in following a group course of action. However, there are some, especially among the youth, who feel otherwise and the issue of prohibition can be seen in terms of a tussle between individual choice and the diktat of the larger social group.
Nearly 200 km to the east of Aizawl, on a road that winds along the hillsides, lies the sleepy town of Champhai, headquarters of the district of the same name. Champhai shares a 404 km long unfenced border with Myanmar, with the ethnically-related Mizo-Chin people on either side allowed free access for 16 km into either country (but there are those from the Myanmar side who come in further, even up to Aizawl). During the "troubles", the period from 1966 until 1986, many Mizos went across to the Myanmar or Burma side. Thirty km from Champhai town is the scruffy border town of Zokhawthar. The END here has to oversee the district and the porous border with a total staff of about 45 people.
A beer bar on the Myanmar side overlooks the River Tiau that separates that country from India.
Mizoram, with its low population, hilly terrain, and peaceful conditions is, as an END official put it, "a smuggler's paradise". Over-the-counter cold medicines sold in India are smuggled across the border into Myanmar, where the tablets fetch two to three times their actual price. Ephedrine/pseudoephedrine (PE) is extracted from these tablets in makeshift laboratories to manufacture methamphetamine tablets. During the week I was in Mizoram, there were two seizures in Champhai district of heroin trafficked in from Myanmar.
There are reports of traffickers shifting operations to Champhai district from Manipur. An unfenced border and a similar ethnic composition on either side means that people smuggling across PE tablets in bulk or bringing in meth and heroin can be hard to detect. There is talk among people and among the END officials as well of individuals in Champhai who have overnight constructed large houses and bought vehicles. Poverty in the loosely administered Chin State region across the border and a lack of information sharing with Burmese government agencies compounds the problem. The Burmese Army is alleged to let drug smugglers operate in return for a cut. Most bulk seizures take place in Aizawl, where buyers from outside the state arrive to negotiate. An alternative drug route passes through Lunglei in southern Mizoram and into Bangladesh.
Champhai is a sleepy town 30km from the unfenced Indo-Myanmar border.
Mizoram with a population of only about 12 lakh has made the most of its limited resources. It has a high literacy rate (over 90 per cent), and a low crime rate. A club from the popular Mizoram Premier League has even made it to the I-League for the 2015-16 season. But, like Vanlalruata of the CYMA, there are many in Mizoram who fear that along with the lifting of prohibition, the trafficking of drugs from across the border if not checked could lead to new problems for this otherwise peaceful north eastern state.
Like other states in the north east, Mizoram is largely dependent on central government funds. This might lessen to some extent if the current oil exploration is successful; the 60MW Tuirial hydro project is expected to be operational by 2017, thus saving the power-deficit state more money. However, this might also weaken the government's argument of lifting prohibition for the sake of increased revenue. And with assembly elections due in 2018, the state government could well reverse its current stand on prohibition in order to win the approval of influential church bodies.
Ankush Saikia is the author of Dead Meat, a crime novel set in Delhi.