New momentum

Print edition : September 04, 2015

An agitation demanding the closure of a TASMAC liquor-vending outlet at Kalingapatti in Tirunelveli district on August 1 turned violent. Photo: A. Shaik Mohideen

G. Ramakrishnan, State secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist); Vaiko, general secretary of the MDMK; Thol. Thirumavalavan, leader of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi; and R. Mutharasan, State secretary of the Communist Party of India; at a rally in Chennai on August 13 demanding prohibition. Photo: M. PRABHU

Students of Government Law College, Coimbatore, staging a protest in front of a liquor shop near the Lawley Road Junction in the city on August 4. Photo: M. Periasamy

Sustained protests in a village for the removal of a liquor shop and the death of a crusader against alcohol consumption there provide new energy to the anti-liquor movement in Tamil Nadu.

THE people of Unnamalaikadai, a panchayat town in Vilavancode taluk in Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu, had had enough. The semi-urban area of 23,000 people, not very far from the Kerala border, had a problem not dissimilar from that of many other towns and villages in Tamil Nadu: a retail liquor-vending shop owned and operated by TASMAC (Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation Ltd) at its most important tri-junction. On the morning of July 31, the townspeople decided to step up their protest against the shop by planning a self-immolation in front of it. They were led by the town panchayat president, R. Jayaseelan, and “Sasi” Perumal, a prohibition crusader who had only just been taken seriously by the government.

The residents Frontline spoke to were clear what they were objecting to. “There are drunkards all day at this junction,” said Biju, who runs a shop close to the TASMAC outlet. “Vehicles have to slow down. No one can walk past the shop. People here are fed up,” he said. Venu, who runs a restaurant down the road, said the drinkers left all kinds of junk on the road. “It was a big nuisance,” he added.

Most people who came forward to offer their views were not supporters of prohibition; they just did not want the shop to remain in this location. The town panchayat had organised a signature campaign and even appealed at all possible fora against the liquor outlet. Finally, it filed a writ petition in the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court.

The petition (WP (MD) No.4348 of 2013) sought the shifting of the TASMAC shop “to any other suitable place according to the Tamil Nadu Liquor Retail Vending (in Shops and Bars) Rules, 2003”.

On February 20 last year, Justice R. Sudhakar gave a one-page ruling stopping short of advising the shifting of the shop but nevertheless encouraging the district authorities to shift it: “The learned counsel for the petitioner has also brought to the notice of this court the field plan prepared by the Assistant Engineer (Highways), Kuzhithurai, and prayed for the shifting of the TASMAC shop. The authority concerned is directed to consider the said representation of the petitioner with all seriousness that is required, in the light of the above said Field Plan. If prima facie materials are shown and the objections raised by the petitioner are in accordance with the relevant rules, the authority concerned may consider shifting of the TASMAC shop No.4839... to any other place which does not cause any inconvenience to the general public, educational institutions, places of worship or other areas that may be specified under the relevant rules.”

TASMAC authorities agreed to shift the shop. In a letter to N. Robertkumar, convener of the movement for shifting the shop, the district official in charge of TASMAC, M. Rajaiyyah (1288/C/13 dated 25/03/2014), assured the activist that pursuant to the orders of the High Court, TASMAC was working towards shifting the shop to a different location.

Jayaseelan said: “They kept saying they would shift; we had sent 11 reminders over a period of time, but they never acted on this. They had no intention to shift.”

Jayaseelan told Frontline that the town panchayat had passed one resolution 10 years ago and another on October 4, 2013, demanding that the liquor shop be shifted from the tri-junction. The resolution was forwarded to the District Collector. “We had exhausted all avenues of democratic protest. We had submitted several memoranda, met everyone from the Minister downwards, passed resolutions, organised sit-ins, dharnas, hunger strikes, and even announced a self-immolation struggle. But there was no response from the TASMAC authorities,” he said.

Jayaseelan made it clear that the people of Unnamalaikadai were fighting for one shop to be shifted and it was not a struggle for prohibition in Tamil Nadu. “We want the shop to be shifted from the tri-junction. That is our only demand. We are not even demanding that the shop should not be opened elsewhere. We do not want the shop in this location as we are facing problems,” he told Frontline.

On June 30, the people of the town undertook a hunger strike in front of the TASMAC shop. As the response to the strike call was tremendous, the TASMAC authorities agreed to shift the shop and sought 20 days’ time. When this promise was not kept, the people sought the support of opposition political parties for a “self-immolation” protest on July 31. “We had the support of all the parties,” Jayaseelan said.

When Jayaseelan, Sasi Perumal and others gathered in front of the TASMAC shop on July 31, there was no response from the authorities. Then Sasi Perumal began climbing on to the mobile phone tower located about 100 metres from the shop at around 8:30 a.m. Jayaseelan followed suit. The intention was to set themselves on fire on top of the tower. Once the local authorities were convinced that the duo might actually do as they had threatened, a posse of police personnel and revenue officials rushed to the spot.

But despite repeated pleas from the revenue and police officers, Sasi Perumal refused to budge. Jayaseelan climbed down after an official from TASMAC made a promise that the shop would be shifted within a week. Sasi Perumal was brought down in an unconscious condition by the Fire and Rescue Department in the afternoon. He was bleeding from his nose and abdomen. He was rushed to the Government Taluk Hospital at Kuzhithurai, where the doctors pronounced him brought dead around 1:30 p.m.

News of his death spread in the small town. People emptied on to the roads and protested against the laxity of the district administration. Local people said the protest lasted a few hours. Special police battalions were commissioned to dismiss the protesters from the main thoroughfares. Although the people now stay indoors, there is simmering discontent over the manner in which their demand was ignored by the government.

Meanwhile, the shop continues to exist in the same location though it has not opened since July 31. Jayaseelan said: “There are stocks inside the shop. The authorities have told us that they will not operate the shop from this location. I hope they keep the promise at least now.”

The Kalingapatti violence

This was the spark. Youth climbing on to mobile phone towers, women staging protests seeking the closure of “wine shops”, differently abled people protesting against the free availability of alcohol, political parties calling for a bandh over the death of Sasi Perumal, attacks on TASMAC shops... it seemed as if the protest against a TASMAC shop was turning into a mass movement for prohibition in the State.

The first violent agitation demanding the closure of a TASMAC shop happened 200 kilometres from Unnamalaikadai. At Kalingapatti, the native village of Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) general secretary Vaiko, in Tirunelveli district, an agitation demanding the closure of a TASMAC outlet began on August 1. Vaiko’s 94-year-old, wheel-chair-bound mother, Mariammal, was among the protesters who attempted to lock the outlet, raised slogans against the police and condemned the government for operating TASMAC shops, which ruin the lives of people.

The village panchayat president and Vaiko’s brother, V. Ravichandran, said the panchayat passed a resolution in 2002 demanding the closure of the liquor shop. It had followed it up with petitions at the district level, but there was no response. On the first day of the protest, the agitators succeeded in getting the shop shut down, but it was opened the very next day. “They shut it when my mother protested. What was the need to open it soon after?” asked Vaiko, who is firmly entrenched in his home village and takes great pride in it.

Vaiko was of the opinion that the shop could have remained shut at least until the agitation died down. The opening of the shop so soon, he said, infuriated not only the villager residents but also prohibition activists.

When his village wants something done, the people always turn to Vaiko. So it was Vaiko’s turn to lead the agitation the next day. A violent protest led to the closure of the shop, and Vaiko alleged that he was targeted. The liquor shop at Kalingapatti was ransacked by a group of villager residents. The police resorted to lathi charge and then fired tear gas shells to disperse the crowd. Some police personnel were injured in stone throwing.

The police retaliated by charging Vaiko with attempt to murder, a non-bailable offence under Section 307 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Ironically, Vaiko was not arrested, though there is no provision to allow a person charged under this section to remain free.

On August 3, the Karivalamvanthanallur police invoked provisions under 11 more sections of the IPC and registered cases against Vaiko, Ravichandran and 50 others for allegedly ransacking the TASMAC liquor shop. These included Sections 147 (rioting), 148 (rioting with deadly weapons), 153 (provocation with intent to cause riot), 294 B (uttering obscene or provocative words in a public place), 188 (disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant), 332 (voluntarily causing hurt to deter public servant from his duty), 341 (wrongful restraint), 353 (assault or criminal force to deter a public servant from discharge of his duty), 447 (criminal trespass), 307 (attempt to murder) and 435 (causing damage to property). The police also invoked Section 3 (1) of the Tamil Nadu Property (Prevention of Damage and Loss) Act, 1992 (damaging property). Vaiko laughed off the charges (see interview).

Again, there was no attempt to change the shop’s location. Aware that the government would not budge, the Kalingapatti panchayat convened a special panchayat council meeting on August 4 and passed unanimously a resolution for the removal of the liquor shop.

The meeting was presided over by Ravichandran. Gopal, the panchayat vice-president, and nine ward members attended it. A copy of the resolution was forwarded to the Collector, M. Karunakaran. But there has been no word on the issue.

Vaiko’s stand on prohibition is not new. In 2012, he undertook a padayatra demanding prohibition. He began the padayatra from the coastal village of Uvari, about 70 km from Tirunelveli, because the village, with a Roman Catholic Christian population of about 6,000, had enforced prohibition nearly a century ago (see box).

Such examples of prohibition are not rare in Tamil Nadu. The news of Sasi Perumal’s death was just what the opposition political parties in Tamil Nadu were waiting for. There was no other major issue that they could take up for political mobilisation. Despite the general laxity in the administration because Jayalalithaa had to stay out of office for 236 days following her conviction in a corruption case, her government did not commit any political blunders like it did during the fag end of her first term in office (1991-1996) or in her second term (2001-06).

In the first term, the gaudy wedding of her foster son, Sudhakaran, whom she disowned later, had infuriated the people for its sheer pomp and vulgar display of wealth. In the second term, her government’s high-handedness when it came to the dismissal of 1.7 lakh striking government employees (later reinstated) and the midnight arrests of a large number of them turned the whole administrative machinery against her. This machinery conducts the elections, and its members vote.

Ever since her party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), was voted to power in 2011 for the third time under her leadership, there have been no such major mistakes. In fact, she has enlarged the scope of the welfare state to the extent that the deficit is growing at an unhealthy pace and revenues are not keeping pace with government expenditure. In short, people’s complaints have generally been on local issues and on the overarching spectre of corruption. As corruption is all-pervasive, it may not be an issue for a focussed agitation.

But no political party, barring a start-up like the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), can take up corruption as an issue. Expansion plans of some multinational industries have been shelved or shifted to other States. But, for the reason that an issue such as job creation will not strike an immediate chord with the people, no serious political party wants to touch it. Prohibition, as people in the southern districts told this correspondent, is the one pan-Tamil Nadu issue that seems to hold any appeal now.

But the State government is not in a position to give up its revenue from the liquor trade. TASMAC controls the procurement of alcohol and its retail through its 6,800 outlets in the State. This is the single largest revenue earner for the State government. Commercial taxes constitute the second largest revenue source. Tax on alcohol is expected to bring in Rs.29,672 crore in 2015-16 against Rs.26,188 crore in 2014-15. Sale of alcohol amounts to one-third of the State’s revenue, estimated at Rs.85,772 crore last year.

“In Tamil Nadu, the revenue from sales tax on liquor is as much as 60 per cent of the revenue from excise duty on liquor. Therefore, both these tax revenues make liquor the single commodity that fetches the largest revenue to a State government,” notes R. Srinivasan in the article “Of revenues, bribes and regulation”, published in Frontline (May 1, 2015).

Voices for prohibition

The Directive Principles of State Policy of the Constitution require the state to endeavour to bring about prohibition of intoxicating drinks and drugs except those for medicinal purposes. Voices for prohibition in Tamil Nadu date back to 1937 when C. Rajagopalachari introduced it in Salem. In 1971, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi lifted prohibition, arguing that it could not work in isolation, that is, when it was enforced in Tamil Nadu alone. He reintroduced it two years later. Promptly, Tamil Nadu witnessed hooch tragedies in 1975 and 1976.

After the 1977 Assembly elections, the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (ADMK, which became the AIADMK later) made liquor available to “permit holders”. In another flip-flop in 1981, the government allowed the sale of arrack and toddy. In 1987, once again prohibition was enforced, this time only on arrack and toddy sales. Again, in 1988 and 1990, hooch tragedies rocked the State. The DMK, which was voted to power, soon enough allowed the sale of arrack and toddy.

In 1991, Jayalalithaa became the Chief Minister for the first time. Her first act was to shut down all arrack and toddy shops, in keeping with an electoral promise. Again, in November 2003, she signed an order giving the government monopoly over the retail liquor-vending business. Ever since, revenues have grown manifold, justifying the government move from an income-generation standpoint.

With the Assembly elections approaching, how can you intensify an agitation aimed at enforcing prohibition? Political parties in the State are trying everything possible, from human chains to attacking retail liquor-vending shops to demonstrations to signature campaigns.

“Give a missed call to 7208015215,” said a representative of the State unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP has set up a “task force against TASMAC”. The Tamil Nadu Congress Committee (TNCC) thinks a one-day token fast on August 14 will do the trick. In late June, the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), the only political party that is consistent in its demand for prohibition, organised a demonstration in the district capitals to press for prohibition.

The Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) wanted to organise a human chain from its headquarters in Koyambedu, Chennai, to the seat of power, Fort. St. George, to press the demand of prohibition on August 6. Permission for the agitation was denied, and its leader, Vijaykant, and others courted arrest. The Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) began a signature campaign on August 11, which will end on October 2. The DMK organised demonstrations on August 10, and declared that prohibition would be the first file the party would sign if voted to power in 2016. The Left parties and their youth and women’s organisations have also joined the protests.

Vaiko, who decided that the best way to enforce prohibition was to force alcohol-vending shops to shut down, regardless of the consequences, urged students to burn down TASMAC shops across the State.

Sporadic violence targeting TASMAC shops erupted across the State. In Usilampatti, volunteers of the Vivasaya Viduthalai Munnani threw cow dung into the shops and forced their closure for a few days. A TASMAC outlet was attacked at Pudupalayam near Attur in Salem district on August 5, resulting in the death of an employee, T. Selvam (40). The salesman was sleeping in the shop when unidentified persons hurled a bottle filled with kerosene into the shop.

In Chennai, the police chased away students of Pachaiyappa’s College, who demanded the closure of TASMAC outlets on August 3. The students of Loyola College staged a protest on the college campus on August 7.

Even the Madras High Court had no objection to the protests for prohibition. Observing that an advocate’s demonstration in front of a TASMAC shop was “laudable” since Article 47 of the Constitution mandated that the state shall endeavour to bring about prohibition, the court directed the State Bar Council to process his application for enrolment as an advocate, without referring to the criminal complaint pending against him for the protest, Justices V. Ramasubramanian and K. Ravichandrababu noted ( The Hindu, August 12).

Perhaps the most bizarre event was played out at the University of Madras. The acting head of the Political Science Department, Ramu Manivannan, was removed from his post soon after some of his students joined the agitation for prohibition. Manivannan, who was arrested for protesting against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka in March, is not known to hold back his opinions.

“I was asked to take action against the students of my department who joined the protests against the arrest of some Pachaiyappa’s College students. Students and their parents are being intimidated for staging protests, which is their democratic right. I refused to take action against the students,” Manivannan told a local English newspaper.

The government’s reaction to the agitation has been on expected lines. It granted Rs.7 lakh to the next of kin of Selvam, the TASMAC employee who was killed in Salem, and promised a job for his wife. Sasi Perumal’s family members, who were agitating for prohibition, were jailed. “Jail for Sasi Perumal’s family, job for TASMAC man’s family. True spirit of justice, only in Tamil Nadu,” commented a journalist.

PMK’s dilemma

The PMK, which has been in the forefront of the demand for prohibition since its inception more than three decades ago, said the political parties that had started showing interest in the issue had hijacked the agenda for political gains. Most of the other opposition parties are asking the PMK to stop sulking and launch an agitation. In their view, no political party can have a monopoly over any issue.

The PMK hit back. It asked DMK treasurer M.K. Stalin, who now runs the party for all practical purposes, to ask his partymen to first shut down distilleries they own before demanding prohibition. In response, one of the DMK men in the eye of the storm, former Union Minister T.R. Baalu, said he would shut down the distilleries if the government implemented prohibition, but not before that. This riposte attracted more than a fair share of criticism on the DMK’s intentions.

Tamil Nadu faces practical problems when it comes to implementing prohibition.

The argument is that prohibition will only help neighbouring States to shore up their revenue. Besides, as studies show, prohibition was a failure in the United States and even in the erstwhile Soviet Union.\

Alcohol can easily be brought in from neighbouring States. Tamil Nadu shares long borders with Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, and these States do not have prohibition. In fact, in Andhra Pradesh alcohol is cheaper than water. The Andhra Pradesh government introduced the new rates to discourage people from consuming illicit alcohol.

Puducherry, 170 km from Chennai and surrounded by Tamil Nadu on three sides, and special enclaves of the Union Territory such as Karaikkal welcome tipplers with tempting offers.

To quote Srinivasan’s argument in his article for Frontline (May 1, 2015): “At the end of the day, we find the differences in liquor policy of States in terms of (a) prohibition on specific types of liquor, mostly country liquor and toddy; (b) excise rates, sales tax rates, licence fees and various other fees for production and distribution of liquor; (c) legal age for possession and consumption of liquor; (d) administered prices for liquor; (e) monopolisation of wholesale and retail trade in liquor; (f) list of dry days in a year; and (g) regulation of the trade through oversight of all the processes from production to sale. These differences in prohibition policy have to be evaluated in terms of efficiency in revenue mobilisation, restriction in consumption of liquor, and effectiveness in eradicating bootlegging and spurious liquor.”

WHO study

Even as political parties in Tamil Nadu clamour for prohibition, the World Health Organisation (WHO), which studied alcohol-related issues in the global South, has a different view. “Prohibition regimes at a local level are widespread in the developing world, including on native American reservations and other ‘fourth world’ locales, as well as in Islamic societies. Except for Islamic societies, prohibitions are often initially successful in reducing violence and improving health but bring with them the characteristic negative consequences of a flourishing illicit trade,” it notes in its study “Alcohol in Developing Societies: A Public Health Approach” (2002). “Concerning the prevention of alcohol-related problems, the politically easiest strategies are often among the least effective. Well-designed alcohol education is an appropriate part of the school curriculum, but is unlikely by itself to do much to reduce rates of alcohol problems in a society,” the study adds.

The WHO says that the most effective measures include taxation to limit consumption levels, specific licensing of alcohol outlets, limits on the number of outlets and on the times and conditions of alcoholic beverage sales or service, minimum-age limits, and measures to counter drink-driving.

“Government monopolies of all or part of the retail or wholesale market have often been effective mechanisms for implementing alcohol control measures, while ensuring equitable availability. Limits on advertising and promotion, and requirements for warning labels or signs, are also of importance, though it is often difficult to demonstrate their short-term effectiveness in changing drinking behaviour,” the study says.

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