In March 2015, when the first liquor shop opened in Aizawl after nearly 18 years of prohibition in Mizoram, there were long queues for several months, recalled Peter Zohmingthanga, assistant commissioner at the excise and narcotics department. Three-and-a-half years later, Mizoram has 48 functional liquor shops, 26 of them in Aizawl. “People have adjusted now, they know how to drink,” Zohmingthanga said. “Wine shops are almost like any other shops now.”

The crowds may have thinned, but an alcohol store in Mizoram is not just another business establishment. One needs a “liquor card” issued by the excise and narcotics department to make a purchase and the quantity is strictly controlled – no more than six bottles of hard liquor and 10 each of wine and beer every month, and only for “personal bonafide consumption”. To ensure the rules are followed to the dot, at least one excise and narcotics official, dressed in khakis, keeps vigil at all times.

Soon, even this limited supply may not be available to drinkers in Mizoram. While the ruling Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party tread a cautious middle ground, most major parties have promised to completely ban alcohol again if voted to power in the Assembly election later this month.

Recurring debate

Mizoram has been debating prohibition for long. The debate revolves around two main concerns: religious morality and health implications. In 1997, the Congress government of the time enacted the Mizoram Liquor Total Prohibition Act to impose prohibition, largely at the behest of the powerful church. Eighty seven percent of the state’s population is Christian.

But when another Congress government partially revoked the ban in 2014 and passed the Mizoram Liquor Prohibition and Control Act, it cited health reasons. “There were too many people dying from drinking spurious alcohol,” said Congress spokesperson Lallianchhunga. “So we had to choose the lesser of the two evils and we made it controlled.”

The ban was indeed a near total failure, say excise and narcotics officials. Illicit alcohol from Assam and from across the border in Myanmar flooded Mizoram’s black market. “All sorts of unregulated chemicals were mixed in the alcohol from Myanmar to make it stronger,” said Zohmingthanga.

According to the excise and narcotics department’s data, 62 people died from drinking spurious alcohol during the prohibition years, though officials privately admit the number was likely much higher. There are no official records of deaths caused specifically by consuming spurious alcohol since 2015. But according to a recent socioeconomic study of the Mizoram Liquor Prohibition and Control Act, commissioned by the government, 19% of all deaths in Aizawl’s hospitals in 2016 were alcohol-related. The report does not furnish corresponding figures for the prohibition years.

When the shops opened

Critics of the state government insist that alcohol-related deaths have gone up with the lifting of prohibition. Leading this charge is the Presbyterian Church, Mizoram’s largest Christian denomination. According to a study conducted by the church in three Aizawl hospitals, the number of alcohol-related death rose from 9.86% in 2014 to 23.23% in 2016. “Selling of liquor freely has led to an increase in the number of users,” claimed P Vanlalhluna, a member of the church’s Synod Social Front. “This has had a serious impact on families.”

However, a baseline study on the extent and pattern of substance abuse in Mizoram, commissioned by the government and published in 2017, found that “every four out of five persons reporting alcohol use initiated it during the era of prohibition”.

Health professionals and excise officials say while the post-prohibition period may not have seen too many new drinkers, existing drinkers may have started drinking more, courtesy easy availability. “People can drink much more for the same price,” pointed out Zohmingthanga.

Chawng Lung Muana, a doctor in Aizawl, said he has witnessed an increase in the number of patients with alcohol-related ailments. “In my personal opinion, people started to drink more as they had easy access to better alcohol,” he said.

The socioeconomic study seemingly corroborate this: 55.1% of the respondents, all suffering from alcoholism, claimed their “dose of alcohol was increased” post-2015.

A liquor card shows the details of purchases made by its holder.

The primary opposition party, the Mizo National Front, which has promised in its manifesto to reintroduce prohibition, seems to have taken its cue from the church. “In every graveyard in Mizoram, there lie buried so many young people who died before their time because of alcohol,” said R Tlangmiangthanga, the party’s campaign chief. Besides, Tlangmiangthanga insisted, alcohol is “prohibited in Christianity”.

Costs and benefits

Supporters of prohibition often quote a “social cost benefit” analysis of the Mizoram Liquor Prohibition and Control Act, carried out by a study group formed by the state government. According to this analysis, the costs outweigh the benefits of allowing the sale of alcohol: for every rupee the state has earned as revenue, it has suffered a loss of Rs 2.85, accounting for expenditure on health and policing and loss of human resources, among other things. The study group’s report does not provide a similar analysis for the prohibition era.

Vanlalrema Vantawl, a journalist who was part of the study group, conceded that a cost-benefit analysis that takes social factors and human resource loss into account would invariably be skewed against alcohol sale. Even in developed nations, he noted, such studies have thrown up similar conclusions: the costs outweigh the benefits.

An excise and narcotics department official keeps record of purchases at a liquor store in Aizawl. Photo credit: Arunabh Saikia

Still, alcohol has been a robust source of revenue for Mizoram. From 2015 to 2018, the state has earned nearly Rs 200 crore from the sale of alcohol, around 50% more than the target set by the government. “For years, we did not have revenue, only expenses in trying to enforce prohibition without adequate manpower,” said a senior excise department official who asked not to be identified. “A small state like Mizoram, which has no industries at all, cannot afford to ban alcohol.”

At the same time, the department claims the current arrangement is draining its resources. “With so many of our personnel stationed in wine shops, we don’t have people for other activities,” said Zohmingthanga. “It has affected the seizure of other contraband. If you go purely by statistics, it will show our seizure of other drugs is increasing, but the market has expanded at a much higher rate.”

Besides, Zohmingthanga said, the seizure of illegal alcohol has only marginally gone down in the post-prohibition years.

Prohibition politics

The Congress has been cautious on the subject of prohibition, choosing to shift the focus away from religion and health. Lallianchhunga claimed the lifting of the ban reduced crime. But the National Crime Records Bureau’s statistics do not indicate any clear pattern. While the total number of crimes in 2015 remained exactly the same as in 2014, it actually went up in 2016.

The BJP, which is seeking to open its account in the Mizoram Assembly this time, has said it will ban the import of Indian Made Foreign Liquour from other states if voted to power. “We will promote our local products,” said JV Hluna, the party’s state chief.

Political parties’ insistence on prohibition stems largely from the staunch opposition to alcohol of the church and the Mizo civil society, both of which have an overarching influence in the state.

The Mizo National Front thus sees electoral gain in making prohibition one of its key campaign promises. “Apart from anti-incumbency, this is the biggest issue this time,” said Tlangmiangthanga. “It is not only religious. Practically also, drinking is completely opposed by parents because once children start drinking they cannot control themselves.”

The socioeconomic study found that most Mizos do indeed disapprove of drinking.

Yet, the Mizo society’s aversion to alcohol has not always had a direct impact on elections. The state voted the Congress out of power in 1998, just a year after the party imposed prohibition. More recently, in the Aizawl municipality election of 2015, the Mizo National Front took a similar hardline position on alcohol. While it did win overall majority, the party lost in Mission Veng, the seat of the Presbyterian Church in Mizoram.

Many believe the party, even if voted to power, would think twice before reimposing prohibition. “No party will do it,” said a senior government official. “We have seen what prohibition looks like in Mizoram. On Christmas, a Rs 150 bottle of rum bootlegged from Assam used to sell for Rs 1,000.”