The death of 40 residents – mostly from the Christian community – of Toba Tek Singh due to consumption of toxic home-brewed alcohol and the arrest of five others for making it has once more brought to fore the dangers of the illicit moonshine trade. This is not the first such event in recent memory, although it has been the deadliest, can we expect it to be the last? The issue of alcohol consumption in Pakistan is a complicated one and simply advocating for a more stringent enforcement of prohibition will not do anything.

Firstly, we have to realise that alcohol consumption is a fairly common practice in Pakistan and despite prohibition for the better part of four decades, the practice has continued to thrive – it is not the burning moral issue it was in the 1970s. Secondly, one of the common threads throughout the cases of deaths and injuries caused by toxic liquor is that the victims always belong to the poorer section of society – the problem has class dimensions, regardless of religion or community. While the middle and upper class consumers can readily access imported and locally brewed alcohol on the black market, poorer citizens – even those belonging to minorities that are allowed to legally buy alcohol – have to resort to drinking shady home-grown concoctions due to skyrocketing prices caused by general prohibition and tight government control.

This is a systemic problem, not a situational one, hence asking the government to crack-down against illegal moonshiners will only achieve limited results. The government cannot be everywhere at once, especially when that “where” is a dilapidated, nondescript room in the middle of an urban sprawl or a rural outpost. Harsher punishments may also deter a few, but the burgeoning demand for alcohol will still beckon others with quick profits.

Reversal of prohibition does not seem like an option at this moment, but relaxing the regulations for people who are already allowed to buy alcohol – mostly minorities – may tackle one aspect of this problem. We have already seen this policy in play in Karachi, where the widespread existence of licenced wine shops selling to minorities has kept production of toxic alcohol to a low – even in a metropolis strewn with concentrated poor communities. This is supported by the fact that toxic alcohol poisoning seems to be Punjab’s issue more than any other province, where incidentally, prohibition is the strongest. With the recent Supreme Court verdict upholding their legality, their gradual introduction to other parts of the country should be no problem.

This may not be a perfect solution, but if a member of a minority can easily access cheap and safely brewed alcohol in a local, licenced wine shop, then the chances of him resorting to other dangerous concoctions are minimal.