The right to life and security is the fundamental right under Article 7 of our Constitution. Right to life includes both the choice of what to eat, including the right to consume anything and live a dignified and healthy life. The right to security includes, among others, economic, financial, and social security of a person. These rights are not absolute. The State can impose reasonable restrictions through parliamentary acts.

This week, the members of the National Assembly fiercely pushed and decided to allow every citizen to open bars to generate income at the expense of the lives of consumers in the name of narrowing the gap between rich and poor. Unfortunately, this depicts how vulnerable our representatives are when it comes to hunger for power.   

The strong argument put forward by the health minister on negative consequences of such liberalization, including deaths caused by alcohol and huge public health expenditure due to alcohol consumption fell on deaf ears of the fellow members. The members used their personal opinions and presumptions to defy health statistics and undermine Buddhist values. Annual Health Report 2021 states that “out of the 2496 reported deaths, alcohol liver disease continues to be the leading cause of death in the country accounting for 6.65% (166 deaths), followed by other cancers (89 deaths) and other circulatory diseases (85).”

Further, it is statistically proven that alcohol also causes numerous economic and financial burdens on families, especially low-income families due to the high consumption of alcohol. Alcohol is a known factor for domestic violence and social menace including loss of lives due to vehicle accidents and others including violence because of alcohol consumption in the country. Road Safety and Transport Authority reported 225 accidents due to drinking and drive the second most factor causing accidents in the country in 2021 alone. NCWC Reports on domestic violence and other reports revealed alcohol has the major factor in domestic violence and pregnancy problems dues to the consumption of alcohol to both the mother and the child. 

The members unanimously argued that an increase in accessibility will not contribute toward an increase in alcohol consumption without any data or research. Contrarily, a paper written by Esa Österberg, published by World Health Organization states that numerous research and assessments have “showed greater alcohol outlet density to be associated with increased alcohol consumption and harms, including injury, violence, crime and medical harm.” Further studies have revealed that among the ten best “preventive alcohol policies” control on the physical availability of alcohol remains the most effective intervention. A simple example, Americans enjoy gun right as a fundamental right not to kill but for self-defence. However, even with strong laws, America accounts for the highest public shooting cases losing hundreds of lives every year because guns are easily available. 

There is no argument that the current system of bar licensing mechanism is designed for an elite group of Bhutanese, disadvantaging the poorer sections of the society in terms of right to business and right to obtain bar license. There is a need to review the current system but does not mean we need to rush suddenly. However, the immediate lifting of the earlier mechanism without any proper measures to regulate both supply and demand reduction is nothing short of a populous decision to impress the voters. Such a decision also contravenes the Royal Kasho on Civil Service Reform as members defied evidence-based decisions.  

Sonam Tshering

Lawyer, Thimphu

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are author’s own.