Old wine, new bottle

Print edition : September 19, 2014

A queue outside an outlet of the State-owned Kerala State Beverages Corporation. The government seeks to shut down 10 per cent of these outlets every year until all such units are closed by 2025. Photo: S. Gopakumar

Employees working in hotel bars and their familes taking out a rally against the closure of bars in the State, in Thiruvananthapuram on April 29. Photo: S. Gopakumar

Chief Minister Oommen Chandy with State Congress president V.M. Sudheeran in Thiruvananthapuram on February 19. Within the State Congress, the reopening of 418 bars became an issue of serious difference of opinion between the two leaders. Photo: S. Gopakumar

In a sudden move, the Kerala government initiates steps to close down bars and rid the State of liquor sales and consumption within a decade.

KERALA, with a huge population of binge drinkers, has once again unveiled a plan for prohibition in stages, without really being ready for it and leaving the door open for a significant loss in State revenue and a boom in illicit and spurious liquor sales and consumption. The deadline of 10 years to make the State alcohol-free is well beyond the remaining few years in office of the Congress-led coalition government.

However, the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) has declared that it will seek the immediate closure of 730 liquor bars in the State; that from April 1, 2015, bars in (about 20) five-star hotels alone will be allowed to function; and that the Kerala State Beverages Corporation (Bevco, a State-owned monopoly that controls all liquor retail shops and wholesale liquor sales to bars) will shut down 10 per cent of its outlets every year until all such units are closed by 2025.

The UDF has also announced that 68 days in a year, including, from now on, all Sundays, will be “dry days” in the State and that it will seek to reduce the quantity of hard liquor supplied through retail outlets and promote less potent liquor products.

One per cent of Bevco’s revenue is to be used to create awareness about the ill effects of alcohol.

This is in addition to some other measures announced earlier, including raising the eligible age for buying liquor from 18 to 21 and rescheduling the working hours of bars. Bars used to open at six in the morning and work until midnight. Now the legal hours have been fixed as from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Beer and wine parlours and private clubs serving hard liquor seem to have escaped the axe.

On the whole, anti-liquor agitators in the State consider it all as a dream come true, boozers curse it but are sure of finding alternative everyday supplies, bar owners feel they are being unfairly targeted, and enforcement agencies are left inadequate to the task of implementing a hasty political decision.

The State was set to lose Rs.1,811 crore in taxes as a result, Finance Minister K.M. Mani said. With the closure of the bars alone, for example, there will be a fall of Rs.1,010 crore in sales at Bevco outlets —which means an expected fall of nearly Rs.825 crore in sales tax and excise duty collections. The government will lose Rs.375 crore every year when 10 per cent of the Bevco retail outlets are closed down every year. It also expects the ban to be a major setback for the State’s tourism industry.

The government has, however, said that a special fund will be created (with 5 per cent of the yearly revenue from Bevco) for the rehabilitation of the employees of the corporation who lose their jobs and for the victims of alcohol addiction and to launch awareness programmes. Private bar employees are to be offered financial assistance and bank loans “to find self-employment”. The UDF government will, however, seek to protect the traditional toddy industry and ensure the protection of toddy sector jobs. In a State with an annual per capita consumption of 8.3 litres of alcohol, the highest in India, even ruling Front politicians had no clue about the dramatic decision to close down all the 730 privately owned bars until it was abruptly announced by Chief Minister Oommen Chandy at a UDF leadership meeting on August 21.

The meeting was scheduled to discuss the highly contentious issue of reopening a group of 418 bars (out of a total 730) that had remained closed down since April 1, just before the Lok Sabha elections, for their failure to upgrade facilities to the legally mandated standards despite repeated extension of deadlines by successive governments.

The case of the 418 bars was brought to light first by a report of the Comptroller and Auditor General in December 2012 in which it said that the State government had “seriously compromised public safety” by continually regularising these unclassified bars that had failed to upgrade facilities.

With organisations such as the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council opposing any move to open these bars, the ruling Front had postponed a decision on it until after the Lok Sabha elections in the State. But once the elections were over, several Christian and Muslim social organisations and prohibition movements began to take the stand that the closed bars should not be allowed to reopen at all.

Within the State Congress, it became an issue of severe difference of opinion between the new Pradesh Congress Committee president, V.M. Sudheeran, a stickler for principles who insisted that the 418 bars should remain closed, and the Chief Minister, a political pragmatist and tactician, who reportedly took the view that a government could not support the permanent closure of some bars alone while allowing 312 others to function.

Meanwhile, many aggrieved bar owners approached the Kerala High Court and the court ordered an inspection by the authorities concerned for a report on the state of affairs in the 418 outlets that remained closed from April. As inspections began, it was clear that proprietors of many of the bars had quickly upgraded the facilities in their bars by spending crores of rupees to meet the prescribed standards.

With Sudheeran implying at a public speech that the authorities had perhaps sought such an order from the court, an impression gained ground that it was only a matter of time before the government allowed the reopening of the bars on the basis of a favourable court order depending on the inspection reports.

As the issue snowballed, and Sudheeran’s firm stand against the reopening of the 418 bars began to attract more and more supporters —among them almost all other coalition partners, including the Muslim League and the Kerala Congress (Mani)—the Chief Minister increasingly found himself in the uncomfortable position of being portrayed as the only prominent leader supporting the liquor lobby’s cause.

Political master stroke

The decision to go in for “total prohibition in 10 years” instead and to close down all the 730 bars in Kerala, including the 312 others that were still functioning, turned out to be a political master stroke from Oommen Chandy.

By declaring that the government will go the whole hog towards a “liquor-free Kerala”, Oommen Chandy stole the march over his own party rivals and coalition partners who were only arguing against the restoration of licence to the 418 bars that had been closed down.

It also took the breath away from bingers and bar owners in the State and invited only a muted response from the opposition Left Democratic Front (LDF), with its leaders merely expressing doubts about how practical the UDF’s road map to rid Kerala of liquor would turn out to be.

Surely, many alarming trends have been noticed in liquor consumption patterns in Kerala in the past few decades. It included, mainly, the disappearance of the stigma associated with drinking, a substantial increase in the number of “new drinkers”, a lowering of the age at which people took their first drink (thirteen and a half, according to some studies), the emergence of women, especially young women, as a new group of social drinkers, and an increase in alcohol-related crimes, road accidents, diseases including psychological illnesses and deaths. According to some surveys, habitual drinkers spent up to 44 per cent of their income on liquor; a large number of crimes committed in the State were done under the influence of alcohol; 19 to 27 per cent of the hospital beds were occupied by alcohol and substance-abuse patients; drunken driving caused 40 per cent of the road accidents; and alcoholism turned out to be a major cause of the increasing instances of domestic violence, divorce cases and suicides.

Over the years, anti-liquor movements had gained strength in the State, but, perhaps not as firmly as the “liquor lobby”. The liquor business continued to provide more than one-third of the State’s annual Plan outlay which no government could ignore; and with money and muscle power, the liquor merchants had spread their influence in all walks of Kerala society and become a powerful force behind the State’s politics.

In a sense, it is a déjà vu moment in Kerala. Like that of his predecessor, Chief Minister A.K. Antony (who launched a similar measure aimed at “total prohibition in stages” by first banning the sale of arrack in the State in 1996, two months before his government’s term was to end), the wisdom of Oommen Chandy’s decision seems to be in the belief that “everybody wants prohibition, but nobody wants it to be implemented”.

Strand of hypocrisy

Congress governments, sworn to implement prohibition, have banked on this strand of general hypocrisy on several occasions. In January 1987, for example, it appointed a prohibition committee headed by the Gandhian A.P. Udayabhanu at the fag end of the term of a government headed by K. Karunakaran. The credit for the appointment of the committee went to the UDF and it left the burden of implementing unpalatable recommendations, if any, on the LDF government that came after it.

Among other things, the committee recommended moderate drinking, encouraging the consumption of toddy and beer as alternatives to strong drinks, and the implementation of prohibition in stages. The report was released with strong dissenting notes by the prominent anti-liquor movement leaders G. Kumara Pillai and V.R. Krishnan Ezhuthachchan. The report later came in handy for the A.K. Antony government when it introduced partial prohibition through the arrack ban in 1996, again, just before it was to leave office.

Significantly, different parts of the State of Kerala used to be governed by different abkari laws in the period preceding and immediately after Independence, and, under them, several parts of the State (58 per cent of its geographical area, by some accounts) were under total prohibition between 1948 and 1967. This included areas that now form part of Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam, Kasargod, Kannur, Kozhikode, Palakkad and Malappuram districts, where the illicit liquor trade gained enormous strength in subsequent years.

This made the second E.M.S Namboodiripad government to withdraw the total prohibition that existed in the various regions and introduce a uniform Abkari Act for the whole State on May 11, 1967.

The experience of prohibition of the past should have served as a warning for the Antony government when it announced its arrack ban from April 1, 1996. There were 5,285 recognised arrack shops in the State at that time (many more illicit ones) that employed about 13,000 people. Very soon it was clear that the ban only encouraged the trade in illicit arrack and that toddy shops became a front for selling the illicit stuff. Most of the arrack contractors moved over to the toddy sector or began to make higher profits by selling “foreign liquor”. The number of new businessmen getting IMFL (Indian made foreign liquor) licence doubled in a short time and the sale of IMFL “seconds” flourished.

According to an estimate, the sale of foreign liquor increased by over 67 per cent in the State after the arrack ban. The entire arrack business went underground and it eventually led to the widespread production of spurious liquor and several major “liquor tragedies”, notably in places like Kalluvathukkal, Avaneeswaram and Malappuram.

A senior excise official told Frontline soon after the spurious liquor tragedy at Kalluvathukkal in Kollam district which led to the death of 39 people in late 2000: “The blame is surely on the way the arrack ban was introduced in a hurry, two months before the Antony government was to go out of office, without a thought to the inadequate machinery the State had to implement it. If one searches for the underlying causes of this tragedy, they can be found in the deliberate or not-so-deliberate encouragement that the illegal spirit lobby received during that phase of partial prohibition, introduced thoughtlessly and implemented wrongly.”

History seems set to repeat itself in Kerala when yet another government initiates steps to close down bars and rid the State of liquor sales and consumption within a decade. But the bigger challenge for the UDF government may turn out to be in the way it will have to deal with the substantial revenue loss that accompanies its spontaneous prohibition plan.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor