After five people died in Manipur, having consumed methanol-contaminated country liquor on July 29, an old debate about prohibition in the dry state has surfaced yet again. Chief Minister N Biren Singh has now proposed an all-party meeting to discuss the subject.

In 1991, the Manipur People’s Party government led by RK Ranbir Singh passed the Manipur Liquor Prohibition Act. It was the culmination of a long-running civil society campaign against alcohol led by a group called the Meira Paibis – “the women torch bearers” of Manipur – which first emerged in the 1970s.

The state, ravaged by years of insurgency and underdevelopment, had witnessed wide-spread alcoholism and drug addiction. The agitation led by the Meira Paibis would eventually turn into a movement to cleanse Manipur of social evils that arose from these addictions, such as violence against women. Yet prohibition did not mean that alcohol disappeared from the state.

‘Wettest dry state’

Manipur’s prohibition law calls for a blanket ban on the sale and consumption of alcohol, though it allows the state’s Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes to brew their traditional liquors. But the dry state exists only on paper, claim the residents of Manipur. “It is the wettest dry state,” said Paojel Chaoba, an Imphal-based journalist. “There are makeshift vendors across the state where one can just walk in and drink as much as one wants. It’s like just another pub or bar in any other place, just not legal.”

That alcohol is freely available in Manipur is an open secret. As a writer from the state put it: “People who can afford it get branded liquor directly from the black market.” Many are said to get their tipple from Manipur Rifles canteens. “Some get it in bulk from here to resell it again in small towns, at double, triple the MRP [maximum retail price],” said the writer.

Those who cannot afford the steep black market rates stick to country liquor, available freely all over the state. “Almost all Manipuri tribes brew their own rice-based alcohol,” explained Chaoba. “And there’s nothing you can possibly do to stop that. Insurgent groups are known to have even shot people found drunk on local brews, but even that does not stop people. It is part of the state’s customary practices.”

Yet, there is another section – mostly young men who cannot quite afford branded alcohol but do not have a taste for local brews either – which depends on bottled liquor produced in neighbouring South Asian countries. “In local parlance, these are known as lemon juice, grape juice, etc, but they are anything but juice obviously,” said a resident of Motbung town, 25 km north of Imphal. “These are the most popular drinks these days in Manipur, openly available in the market, even in paan dukaans [betel leaf shops].”

A middle ground?

The so-called prohibition meant that the institutional mechanisms that could have ensured accountability for incidents like the one on July 29, have virtually disappeared. “The excise department, for obvious reasons, is almost non-functional,” said Chaoba. “But you cannot say that there is prohibition so we can’t do anything. Five people just lost their lives. And since it is difficult to enforce complete prohibition because of traditional reasons, you might as well have regulations.”

Chaoba added that he, along with a group of other journalists and representatives from civil society, has suggested that the government amend the Manipur Liquor Prohibition Act to introduce some sort of a regulatory mechanism like one that exists in Mizoram. “The chief minister has called for a discussion on the floor of the House so let’s see,” said Chaoba.

Mizoram lifted 18 years of prohibition in January 2015, but still requires its residents to have a permit to procure alcohol. Additionally, there is a cap on the amount of alcohol an individual can buy: six bottles of hard liquor and 10 bottles of wine and beer every month for “personal bona fide consumption”.

A cautious government

However, any move to relax prohibition in Manipur is bound to attract a strong backlash by anti-liquor civil society organisations. The Bharatiya Janata Party-led state government is aware of this.

Acknowledging that there were “liquor vendors were all over”, Nimaichand Luwang, the ruling party’s spokesperson conceded that prohibition was “difficult to enforce” in a state like Manipur. “Even in our culture and tradition, we drink,” he said. “So sometimes we also feel it should be legalised. But even that will not be easy. There will be large-scale objection from the women groups.”

Another senior leader from the ruling party suggested that lifting prohibition will be difficult even if the government wanted to. The lawmaker said: “Apart from the Meira Paibi groups, the UG [underground insurgent groups] want alcohol to be banned. So, we can’t do much.”

The previous Congress government, too, had mulled removing prohibition in the state, largely for economic reasons. The government under Okram Ibobi Singh 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.

However, Ibobi Singh’s government had to drop the idea in the wake of protests by various civil society groups.

Opposition from civil society

This time, too, civil society organisations have not taken kindly to chief minister N Biren Singh’s proposal for a discussion on the matter. The Coalition Against Drugs and Alcohol, a civil society organisation, has said that the only way to avert such tragedies was for the government to enforce prohibition more strictly.

Nianglian Atwu, president of the Churachandpur-based All Tribal Women’s Union, said the women of Manipur had worked very hard to convince the government to impose prohibition in the state, and they will protest against any move to dilute the law. “If prohibition is lifted, alcohol will be even more freely available and even more people will die,” she said.

Raja Misao, a youth leader based in Senapati district, echoed Atwu, saying that it was the government’s responsibility to ensure that prohibition was implemented in “letter and spirit”. “The government only cracks down on illicit liquor establishments when civil society organisations raise a hue and cry,” alleged Misao.