PolicyWTF: Prohibition and Morality
This section looks at egregious public policies. Policies that make you go: WTF, Did that really happen?
— Pranay Kotasthane
If one were to write a book chronicling bans on victimless crimes in India, the index entry for Morarji Desai would be a long one. After all, he holds the dubious distinction of turning lakhs of ordinary citizens into criminals by prohibiting two independent victimless crimes.
The first ban, on alcohol, is rather well-known. The notorious Bombay Prohibition Act of 1949 was passed when Desai was the state’s Home Minister. To enforce the ban, the government created elaborate compliance machinery, misdirecting the limited policing capacity towards apprehending tipplers instead of protecting victims of other crimes. By the time this act was watered down in 1964, more than four lakh people had been convicted under Prohibition! The draconian law is well-documented in Rohit De’s excellent book The People’s Constitution. Read this, for instance:
“The BPA granted vast powers to the police and Prohibition officers. It empowered Prohibition officers and all police officers to “enter at any time, by day or by night, any warehouse, shop, house, building, vessel, vehicle, or enclosed place in which [they have] reason to believe [that] intoxicants or utensils, apparatus or implements used for manufacturing intoxicants are kept.” They could also open packages and confiscate goods that they suspected of containing illicit liquor. Warrants were not required for arrests for any of these offences or for searching premises. The BPA provided that people believed to have committed an offence under the act could be detained without trial and have their movements restricted. The Prohibition policy thus created a system that operated outside the penal code and the criminal procedure code that applied to most offences.” [The People’s Constitution, Rohit De, page 45]
The direct consequences of this PolicyWTF aren’t hard to anticipate. People either switched to alternatives that bypassed the law or started consuming a far worse quality of alcohol in the black market. For instance, De writes:
By 1963 the Planning Commission was protesting the number of tinctures available in India. It pointed out that the British Pharmacopeia had reduced the number of tinctures from thirty-four in 1932 to fourteen in 1963, but the Indian Pharmacopeia of 1955 listed forty-two different tinctures. After interviewing leading medical representatives, the Planning Commission came to the conclusion that there was hardly any medical use of tinctures, which were outmoded and being replaced by modern drugs that were not alcohol-based. Spot checks revealed that several tinctures on the market were actually spurious, consisting solely of alcohol and a suitable coloring agent. Other manufacturers were producing eardrops and eyedrops with a large percentage of alcohol. The frustrated Planning Commission suggested that tinctures be abandoned for more modern medicine and that industrially produced eyedrops and eardrops be replaced by prescriptions that could be made by pharmacists. [The People’s Constitution, Rohit De, page 61]
Says a lot about central planning. When there’s demand, supply finds a way out in imaginative ways that governments can’t clamp down easily.
Desai’s second prohibition was on the sale and holding of gold, even in small quantities. It was this policyWTF that made smuggling of gold a lucrative profession. Here’s what the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence — a union government agency — observed in its Smuggling in India Report 2019-20:
The economic reforms of 1990s witnessed the repeal of the Gold (Control) Act, 1968 that had prohibited the import of gold except for jewellery. The erstwhile statute had led to the emergence of a notorious network of gold smugglers during 1970s and 1980s. The economic reforms and liberalisation led to the imposition of a modest specific duty of Rs 300 on 10 grams in 2011-12 (increased from Rs 200 in 2010-11) on the imported yellow metal, bringing gold smuggling almost to a grinding halt.
While both these policies had immediate adverse consequences, the general equilibrium effect was far worse: the successful and respected people in the society were the ones whose only competence was breaking the law.
Read the full edition here.
Disclaimer: Views expressed on Anticipating the Unintended are those of the authors’ and do not represent Takshashila Institution’s recommendations.