Differences between government, KPCC to the fore

The United Democratic Front (UDF) appears to have run into a deadlock over the issue of liquor bar licences, with little chance of a solution to the growing differences between the government and the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC).

The inner-party dialogues at the party-government coordination committee on framing a fair liquor policy have reached nowhere and there is no word on when it would hold its next meeting. Attempts made by Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala to work out a formula to sort out the differences have not exactly succeeded.

KPCC president V.M. Sudheeran, according to sources, is insisting on a policy that would reduce the number of liquor bars that would go a long way in achieving the Congress party’s proclaimed policy of abstinence. Chief Minister Oommen Chandy has cited practical administrative problems in shutting down all the bars that are substandard. The government is in favour of giving opportunity to the bar owners to improve their standards within a stipulated time, before taking a harsh stand on the issue of licences.

One of the proposal that has come up is to give star classification to the bars. Another proposal is to set up a committee comprising the District Collector, Deputy Commissioner of Excise Department, and Deputy Director of Tourism Department as members to inspect the standard of the existing bars that have two-star classification.

According to government sources, at least 70 bars of the 310 that were given permission on April 3 will have to be shut if star classification is made mandatory. Similarly, out of the controversial 418 bars which were ordered to be closed as per the court directive because of poor quality standards, at least 65 stood a chance to get licences.

At present, star classification is given by the Tourism Department after inspection by a team. The classification is basically given in the larger interests of promoting tourism, mainly for three-star and above. The proposal to set up district-level committees to inspect standards is expected to address the issue of standardisation related to the 418 bars. At the same time, there are several hotels that have earned three-star classification in the past, but continue to do business without maintaining standards.

The political problem for the Congress apparently is the divergent perceptions shared by Mr. Sudheeran and Mr. Chandy about the path to achieve abstinence from liquor. While Mr. Sudheeran’s suggestion that the Congress party should take the initiative in launching a massive anti-liquor awareness campaign has been widely welcomed, but when it comes to administration of the Excise Department, there are several leaders who question the practicality of Mr. Sudheeran’s stand.

Some of the coalition leaders do not exactly share Mr. Sudheeran’s view point. They would rather go along with the Chief Minister’s stand of giving an opportunity to the bar owners to improve their standards. Since the Congress party has been unable to arrive at a consensus, the matter is unlikely to figure at the UDF meeting on Tuesday, sources said.