Days after being sworn in, the Mizo National Front government on Monday passed an order shutting down all liquor shops owned by state agencies and declaring December 21 to January 14 as alcohol-free or dry days in Mizoram. This effectively shut down the privately owned shops as well. This was in keeping with the party’s promise in the run-up to the Assembly elections on November 28 that it would impose total prohibition in the state if voted to power. It is a stop gap measure till the government enacts legislation to impose prohibition.

As Mizoram braces for almost a month of alcohol-free days, it is rife with speculation on how long the government will wait till completely clamping down. “In all probability, there will be a three to six-month window for existing stocks to be cleared,” a senior excise official in the state said tentatively.

Francis Sailo, the owner of two liquor shops in Aizawl city and the secretary of the Mizoram Liquor Vendors’ Association, dryly remarked that this would not be necessary. “In the last couple of days, our sale has gone up at least four-fold,” he said. “The stock in the warehouse will not last more than a week.”

A bad record

The brief three-day window between the passing of the order and the commencement of the dry spell saw hectic activity in the state’s liquor shops: people were not only buying in bulk, there were long queues throughout the day. “When we shut on Thursday evening, there were people still queuing up waiting for their turn,” said Sailo. “Because, Christmas and New Year’s [eve] are the two main occasions that people drink on in Mizoram.”

The last-minute scramble to stock up suggests that implementing total prohibition will be no mean task for the Mizo National Front government, which was voted in with full majority.

Mizoram’s record as a dry state from 1997 to 2015 is not inspiring. A large number of people died from drinking spurious alcohol. Illicit alcohol from Assam and from across the border in Myanmar flooded Mizoram’s black market. Excise officials admit that prohibition was almost a total failure. A baseline study on the extent and pattern of substance abuse in Mizoram, commissioned by the government and published in 2017, also found that “every four out of five persons reporting alcohol use initiated it during the era of prohibition”.

Excise officials in Mizoram say prohibition was almost a total failure in the past. (Credit: Arunabh Saikia)

An ‘action plan’

On Thursday, the new government formulated an “action plan” to ensure alcohol stays off the menu on Christmas and New Year’s eve and to make the ban more effective this time

At the heart of this plan is a joint coordination committee. The committee, headed by Mizoram’s Excise Minister K Beichhua, would have representatives from the state’s excise, police, social and health welfare departments. Additionally, journalists and members of the Young Mizo Association, Mizoram’s most powerful civil society group, would be part of the committee, said Beichhua.

The committee will be replicated at the district level too, the minister said. “Each district committee would be responsible for their area,” he explained.

As part of the action plan, all inter-state police check posts in Mizoram’s territory would be beefed up with extra personnel from the police and excise departments, said Beichhua. Supporting these officials would be members of the Young Mizo Association.

Civil society push

“All our branches will cooperate with the police and excise officials,” affirmed Lalhmachhuana, general secretary of the Young Mizo Association. With a branch in every Mizo neighbourhood, the association has around 804 such units.

An official posted in the state secretariat said the government would largely depend on the Young Mizo Association’s might to implement the ban. The association will also be part of flying squads that will be on the prowl, looking for violators, in Aizawl city and its outskirts. “The excise department is short on manpower,” the official said. During the previous spell of prohibition, too, the group had worked closely with the government. There were also allegations that its actions often bordered on vigilantism.

Beichhua, however, insisted the current action plan was temporary and a more comprehensive policy would kick in once a legislation was in place. “We don’t only mean to prohibit, we are looking for rehabilitation and social reformation,” he said.

But how does the government plan to offset the loss of revenue? Ever since the previous Congress regime legalised its sale in the state, alcohol has been a robust source of revenue for Mizoram. From 2015 to 2018, the state earned nearly Rs 200 crore from the sale of alcohol, around 50% more than the target set by the government. “The council of ministers will sit together and think of something,” the minister said.

Administrative tangle

Excise officials, though, appeared less than enthusiastic about the government’s action plan. An official said that enforcing the alcohol ban would adversely affect the department’s other operations, such as cracking down on heroin. The tiny hill state has been grappling with a major drug addiction crisis for years now. According to government data, the state has about 25,000 active drug users. The real number is likely to be much higher, say activists.

Another government official said the ban would not work. “It is a pointless exercise,” he said. “We already have reports that bootleggers have got activated across the border in Assam. We just don’t have enough manpower to prevent it.”

He added, “It will be just like the old times. Bad alcohol at high rates.”