After 30 years, the Manipur government has revised its policy on prohibition, giving rise to a chorus of protests in the state.

On September 20, the government announced the ban on sale and consumption of liquor would be lifted from all district headquarters, tourist areas, hotels with more than 20 bedrooms and the capital, Imphal city. The ban would also be lifted from establishments and camps of security forces in the state.

The government argued it was meant to curb the disastrous effects of the illicit liquor trade, besides generating employment and annual revenues up to Rs 600 crore. It also contemplated fully legalising liquor in the state.

Despite the 1991 Manipur Liquor Prohibition Act – which banned the consumption, sale and manufacture of liquor – alcohol was widely available in the state. The law exempt traditional liquor brewed by Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the state. The policy was tweaked in 2002 to exempt five hill districts in the state. Vast amounts of bootlegged liquor also sloshed around in Manipur, which lay on smuggling routes from Myanmar into Northeast India.

Still the lifting of restrictions has been criticised by many sections of civil society – from the Meira Paibis, the powerful women activists who have campaigned against alcohol for decades, to the Coalition Against Drugs and Alcohol.

If prohibition in Manipur was largely symbolic, it still had deep roots in the history of the state.

Drying Manipur

“We have been staging sit-in demonstrations in all areas – villages and towns and everywhere,” said K Indu, advisor to the Nupi Samaj, an organisation formed by the Meira Paibis. “We, the women, want [the new policy] to be withdrawn.”

The Meira Paibis or Women Torchbearers are a grassroots women’s movement in Manipur. Their history can be traced back to the early 20th century, when women protested against economic policies and failures of the colonial government and then against state oppression.

In the 1970s, as the clouds of insurgency gathered in the state, the Meira Paibis formed the Nupi Samaj to ward off what they called the societal “evils” of drugs and alcoholism.

As militancy grew in the state, so did reprisals and human rights violations by security forces. The Meira Paibis now directed their energies towards protesting against state violations.

Meanwhile, militant groups like the People’s Liberation Army also cracked down on alcohol consumption. According to militant groups, intoxicants like drugs and alcohol were used by the state to ensure the youth did not engage in “armed revolution”.

Credit: Coalition Against Drugs and Alcohol.

In 1990, the People’s Liberation Army announced that from January 1, 1991, the sale and consumption of liquor would be banned in Manipur. The government ban soon followed.

Former bureaucrat RK Nimai, who was part of the administration that imposed the 1991 prohibition law, said officials were against the complete ban on alcohol – they feared it would lead to an increase in the illicit liquor trade. “But the chief minister had said that was a political decision they had to take,” he said.

While large parts of the state never stopped drinking, the political opposition to alcohol remains.

“We are trying our best to object to the new policy to force the government to withdraw it,” said Indu, a veteran women’s leader. “And I think we will win.”

During the protests, the Nupi Samaj gave the government an October 10 deadline to revoke its decision.

Failed attempts to drop restrictions

The deadline came and went. But in an effort to placate the protesters, Chief Minister N Biren Singh has promised a white paper on the potential legalisation of liquor in Manipur.

Over the last decade, the state government’s attempts to loosen restrictions have had to be dropped in the face of resistance.

In 2015, Okram Ibobi Singh’s Congress government had considered lifting the ban on the manufacture and sale of liquor, but the proposal was rolled back after protests.

In 2018, Biren Singh tabled the Manipur Liquor Prohibition (Second Amendment Bill) but had to refer it to a select committee as women’s activists and other groups opposed it. The bill lapsed as the term of the legislative assembly ended.

Health concerns

After the easing of restrictions on September 20, a two-page draft Manipur Liquor Regulation Policy, aimed at legalising liquor, was floated on October 4. It speaks of the need to regulate the sale of alcohol, reduce the easy availability of “illicit and adulterated liquor”, Indian Made Foreign Liquor as well as Foreign Made Liquor.

The policy also bans the manufacture and sale of any local brew that has not been certified by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India or which does not meet safety standards.

Apart from raising revenue, the policy cites health concerns arising from unchecked alcohol consumption.

But health concerns are also what drives the opposition to lifting curbs on alcohol. According to Nupi Samaj advisor Indu, many drinkers have died of liver cirrhosis, leaving behind orphaned children.

The Coalition Against Drugs and Alcohol, which has been active in Manipur since 2006, said loosening restrictions was a “hasty” decision, taken without consulting other stakeholders, including the Meira Paibis.

Credit: Coalition Against Drugs and Alcohol.

“If they legalise [alcohol] now, how will they control [its consumption]. What is the mechanism?” said Geetchandra Mangang, secretary general of the organisation. “It will lead to more consumption and chaos.”

He pointed out that Manipur ranks fifth among states consuming the most alcohol, going by the National Family Health Survey data from 2019-’20.

Mangang dismissed the state government’s contention that legalising alcohol would mean access to quality liquor. “How can you say that if you take liquor you will have good health?” he demanded.

The government’s claims of raising excise revenue have also been met with scepticism. “[The] government is too optimistic as far as the excise duty is concerned,” said author and journalist Pradip Phanjoubam. He said many residents of the state drink the local brew, which is exempt from excise duty.

Brewing trouble

But it is also feared that the new policy will affect traditional liquor industries like in Andro and Sekmai, where rice-based alcohol is brewed. Nimai told it would destroy traditional brewers.

“It is extremely unfair as our traditional liquor has history and is a part of [our] intangible heritage,” he said. Nimai said that insisting on an FSSAI certification would exclude many traditional brewers. “Business will be controlled by liquor barons,” said Nimai.

He also criticised the claims of ministers that traditional alcoholic brews, such as Yu or Kalei, were adulterated. Nimai said Yu varieties were made from distilled rice and also had medicinal uses. He also criticised the state for not taking the citizens on board before making the decision.

Nimai said while the government should ensure high quality alcohol was available, it should also spread awareness about the hazards of alcohol consumption.