A curious combination of judicial and saffron activism is posing a serious threat to employment prospects, thereby undermining the economy when it is dealing with the phenomenon of jobless growth because of automation.
According to Niti Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant, at least one million jobs will be lost by the Supreme Court’s order banning the sale of liquor near the highways, affecting tourism “which creates jobs”.
As many of the highways pass through the cities where five-star hotels are located, they, too, will have to go “dry”, prompting Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP Kirron Kher to ask: “How logical is it that you can’t serve liquor in a five-star hotel?” As the hotel industry is a major employment provider, it is a question of “more than a million jobs”, she said.
But it isn’t only the promotion of abstinence which can be fatal for employment prospects. The crackdown on illegal abattoirs and even meat shops in Uttar Pradesh and in other BJP-ruled states will also kill jobs.
The closure of legal and illegal slaughterhouses will affect three sectors of Uttar Pradesh’s industries — meat packaging, livestock and leather. With the second-highest unemployment rate in the country — after Jharkhand — the state can hardly afford to add more jobless to the statistic of 58 unemployed out of 1,000 against the national average of 37. Besides, the country as a whole will suffer since meat and leather goods are major export earners.
Instead of focusing on the modernisation and mechanisation of the abattoirs so that they produce wholesome, hygienic meat, the governments of Yogi Adityanath in Uttar Pradesh and of other BJP chief ministers have engaged in wholesale closures although the original promise was to shut down only those slaughterhouses as well as meat shops which were functioning without licences.
But the BJP’s spectacular victory in Uttar Pradesh seems to have made all its Chief Ministers more enthusiastic about imposing their fetishist preference for vegetarianism on the common man. As Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani said after the passage of the law decreeing life imprisonment for cow slaughter, his goal is make the state vegetarian.
Even as the Allahabad High Court has taken up the plea of the meat traders about the forcible closure of their establishments, the Rs 22,000 crore ($3.5 billion) meat trade in Uttar Pradesh and the Rs 50,000 crore leather business is in turmoil with thousands of jobs at stake.
What these crackdowns on the sale of liquor and on meat shops show is that the judicial and political authorities do not always consider the effects of their decisions before taking them. Yet, it should have been obvious that sudden bans on items of consumption can have a hugely unsettling fallout.
Apart from depriving thousands of employees of their daily bread, the strict regulation of the hospitality sector will not show India as a welcoming destination to visitors and investors. As a country which wants to climb up the ladder as a place where it is easy to do business, India cannot afford to be hemmed in by a restrictive environment.
Not surprisingly, the government is trying to wriggle out of the parameters set by the judiciary by denotifying the highways by making them ordinary roads or, as in the case of one five-star hotel, allowing entrances from a gate well outside the 500-metre limit set by the Supreme Court.
In any case, there was something odd about the limit, for it would not stop a habitual drinker from buying a bottle from elsewhere and then driving along the highway.
Outlawing the sale of liquor is not the ideal way to reduce accidents due to drunken driving. A more effective course would have been to introduce intensive police patrolling along with regular and repeated breathalyzer tests. More visible road signs and warnings against driving under the influence of alcohol — “Better be late, Mr Motorist, and not the late Mr Motorist” — can help in checking reckless driving.
Steep fines and the cancelling of licences for prolonged periods can be some of the other deterrents instead of quick-fix solutions which can create more problems than they will solve. Society has become far too complex and intertwined for such hasty, band-aid remedies. A ban in one sector can destabilise several others.
In any event, a ban — whether on drinks or food or books or films — is intrinsically a flawed measure on two counts. First, it is an invasion of private space which is increasingly resented in a time of growing individualism. Secondly, it smacks of an authoritarian, Big Brother knows what’s good for you attitude which militates against democracy.
Considering the huge backlog of cases in the law courts — 27 million at the last count — it is odd that the judiciary should invite the charge of overreach by taking upon itself the task of infusing patriotism via the playing of the national anthem in cinema halls and keeping the roads safe by banning liquor shops near the highways.
Where the BJP’s obsession with diet is concerned, its “sabka saath” (taking everyone along) slogan doesn’t seem to embrace everyone.