Home > News > Columnists > Saisuresh Sivaswamy
Old enough to vote, not old enough to drink
February 26, 2004
There are many things I find wrong in an India despite its famed shine and sheen -- and saying so doesn't take away from my sense of patriotism. But I don't think anything in that brief list of cribs can come closer to the Maharashtra government's new resolve to crack down on under-21s drinking alcohol, or patronize pubs and discotheques.
Of course, there should be an age limit to drinking and smoking, there can be no argument on that score. Most Indian states have age-related regulations to drinking – in Delhi I am told it is 'allowed' at the advanced age of 25 – but such restrictions are enforced more in breach than practice so no one has really complained.
But when a progressive state like Maharashtra, or a cosmopolitan city like Mumbai were to take similar steps, it is time to speak up and against.
Look at the whole thing from a youngster's point of view. He turns 18, is wooed left and right by political parties of all hues for his maiden vote, he can procure a driving licence on reaching this magical landmark, heck, an 18-year-old girl can wed, is recognized as an adult for all practical purposes -- bar one (and no pun intended there).
He or she is not old enough to drink.
If there is a logic to this decision, it escapes me. Perhaps someone like Maharashtra's proactive minister Anil Deshmukh, who operates extremely well in full view of the news media, can provide some rational explanation to keeping those between 18 and 21 years of age out of Bacchus' clutch.
Honestly, I don't see what the hullabaloo is all about. Why can't a youth who can vote for the likes of Deshmukh step into a pub or have a drink? What is it about this age group that says while they possess the power of reason to cast their ballot in the country's most critical exercise ever, they cannot have a bottle of beer or two, even though they have the money to pay for it?
Debate: Are you old enough to party?
Sure, crack down for all you want on pre-teens making a public display of their preference from a drink or smoke -- but do it by choking the supply end, say, the pub owner eager to make a quick buck. But when you use the power of legislation to bring about a patently insane decision, it is a patent misuse of the power that the voters – including the same 18 year olds -- have conferred upon you.
Sure, this is the land of Mahatma Gandhi who advocated total prohibition, and will always cherish the ideals he stood by and died for, and respect the fact that he led a non-violent revolution to bring the most powerful empire of the time to its knees.
We could adopt his vision for free India in toto. That is an option that was considered, and abandoned, and India chose to chart its own course. Clinging to just one aspect of his principles, that too in tatters, while you have jettisoned the crux of his value system does his memory no good. It is also the worst form of hypocrisy one can ever practice, paying lip service to his tremendous sacrifice.
Look at the various scenarios: I as a father want to celebrate the fact that my son has cast his first vote in this glorious country by taking him and his peers out for a drink. In Maharashtra, and in many other parts of the country, I will not be allowed to do that.
Or another scenario. I am a 19-year-old teetotaler who loves to visit the discotheque and dance, maybe just chill out. Minister Deshmukh has just ensured that the doors are shut on me because he thinks all that those in my age group do is get sloshed in pubs and discos, and ruin our careers. Not to mention burning up dad's hard-earned money.
Even sociologically, there is a better case to be made for youngsters to burn up their energy in 'constructive ways', rather than have them let loose with idle time on their hands.
The Maharashtra decision, far from curing what it thinks is an ill that is crying out to be cured, will create an altogether new set of problems -- like corruption, harassment of innocents and the like. We don't need to wait to see it unfold, we all know this is how the system operates.
Maybe in most cities such restrictions will not even be considered an issue. But when an international hub like Mumbai starts to go on this stupid path, it is a cause of worry. This is a city that has an incredible buzz about it -- part of which comes from the fact that it never sleeps, its nights are as alive as the day. Why would anyone want to tamper with it, ruin its very character, beats me.
Or, if the government really believes that a person becomes specially qualified, more in control of his or her life, only at the age of 21, then it can roll back a lot of other 'permissions' too, why crack down only on drinking?
Raise the voting age back to 21.
Don't allow Indians below 21 to marry.
Don't allow those under 21 to drive or acquire a licence
Don't allow those below 21 to take up any employment.
Don't allow those under 21 to surf the Internet -- we all know it is a whole wide world of pornography and such nefarious content out there that corrupts the youth no end.
Raise the ceiling on a minor's age to 21 from the current 18. This will also mean a delinquent will not be treated as a criminal till he turns 21, which is absolutely wonderful.
And, finally, prevent the under 21s from reading newspapers and watching television; after all, they could be subject to so many seditious ideas which, given their impressionable age, they may fall prey to.