The debate over whether to continue with prohibition has once again surfaced, this time on the floor of Manipur Legislative Assembly itself with senior Congress MLA K Ranjit taking the lead.
While stressing that the impact of Prohibition Act in force is almost nil as locally distilled liquor and India Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) are abundantly available in the state, he questioned whether the state is considering lifting prohibition. It was like a million dollar question.
Chief Minister N Biren Singh seems to be still considering the proposal for lifting prohibition which he could not achieve in his last term as chief minister. Despite stiff opposition from women prohibition groups and other CSOs, he tried in 2018 to bring in the Manipur Liquor Prohibition (Second Amendment) Bill, 2018.
The bill which proposes to enable manufacture of local alcoholic liquor strictly for sale outside the state was referred to a Select Committee chaired by the then Deputy CM YJoykumar Singh and after due deliberations the committee recommended it for passage in the assembly.
Sadly, as widespread protests continued the proposed bill lapsed and once again it was placed in the backburner.
Prohibition was enforced in the state by the RK Ranbir Singh government on April 1, 1991, following a total ban by the outlawed organisation People's Liberation Army (PLA). Yet, calls for lifting it have been going on ever since.
In 2002, the Congress government led by O Ibobi lifted prohibition in the five hill districts of Manipur.
The state Legislative Assembly passed the Manipur Liquor Prohibition (Amendment) Bill, 2002 on 31 July 2002 lifting prohibition in the districts of Chandel, Churachandpur, Senapati, Tamenglong and Ukhrul.
In 2015 again, the Ibobi government had mulled removing prohibition in the state, largely for economic reasons.
The government then had contended that alcohol could provide a steady source of revenue for Manipur, which has always been dependent on Central largesse.
The government also suggested that local Manipuri brews could be exported to other parts of the country. He, however, had to drop the idea in the wake of protests by various civil society groups.
The idea began to take shape once again after BJP’s N Biren Singh came to power. But the idea this time was not necessarily born out of the income it could generate for the state from exporting local liquor, but rather an unfortunate incident which happened on July 29, 2017 in which five people died after having consumed methanol-contaminated country liquor.
It sparked off widespread protests against illegal distilleries and the failure of the government to enforce prohibition on totality while also stirring up an old debate about the reality of prohibition. This brings us to the basic question of what are Manipuris really drinking which goes by liquor either local or IMFL?
Rest assured, the state or society has never been able to actually stop the production and sale of alcohol both local brew and IMFL in the state or ban people from consuming it.
Never in the history of mankind has any state been able to enforce prohibition in totality while on the other hand it only enriches black marketers and leads to spurious liquor finding its way in the backstreets. One has heard enough of tragic deaths across the country after consuming spurious liquor.
The other serious problem is health related, where deaths from liver cirrhosis is mostly linked with consumption of adulterated liquor. Everyone knows that IMFL comes in drums at Khatkhati at the Assam-Nagaland border where it is bottled into different brands by using flavours and shipped to God knows where. It is happening on the Myanmar side also, from where high-end foreign brands come.
So, the solution seems to be legalisation of production of our local brews and exporting it like Feni from Goa to the rest of the world for extra revenue in the state coffers and of lifting the ban on IMFL also.
The local brew is known by many names, but “Kalei” seems to be a common denominator for almost all the local brews distilled here in the state.
Interesting to note here is the fact that a sort of geographical indication always goes with the choice brews like Sekmai, Phayeng and Andro etc. Each has its own distinct flavour and kicks. God forbid, bring it on.