In this election, prohibition is back as a topic of political discourse in Tamil Nadu, known for adopting it on a pilot basis in the composite Salem district of the erstwhile Madras Presidency as early as 1937 and post-Independence, following it up in full measure between 1948 and 1971.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its three major allies in the State — the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK), the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) — are demanding that prohibition be restored in the State.
At an election rally in Tirunelveli on Friday, DMDK founder-president Vijayakanth made the demand, while the PMK and the BJP held women’s conferences in recent months to highlight it.
MDMK general secretary Vaiko, who took out a “padayatra” on prohibition about 15 months ago, referred to prohibition as he released his party’s manifesto on Saturday.
The support for prohibition has now grown beyond the realm of political parties. K. Ka. Sasi Perumal, social activist who went on a fast for about a month in 2013 and followed it up with another this year, says that when public opinion is overwhelmingly in favour of the idea, the government of the day has to implement it.
The proponents of prohibition refer to Gujarat, which, they say, has achieved high rates of economic growth despite nil revenue from liquor trade. They point out the devastating effects of the drinking habit on several sections of society, particularly youth.
The Gujarat instance is raised to counter critics of the idea who say revenue collections of the Tamil Nadu government went up substantially after the previous All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam regime, in November 2003, did away with private retail sales of Indian Made Foreign Liquor and granted the exclusive right of retail vending to the State-owned Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation.
The critics go back in history to cite their case that prohibition has not worked everywhere. Even in Gujarat, the policy is poorly implemented, they quote from reports. They recall that between 1971 and 1991, prohibition had been withdrawn and reintroduced at different points of time in Tamil Nadu. Arrack and country liquor have been banned since July 1991.
A former AIADMK Minister says that when the Union government, in the past three years, has not been “considerate to the legitimate demands” of the State government for higher financial assistance, the State cannot afford to lose a major revenue source. Another point repeatedly made by the ruling party is that Tamil Nadu cannot remain in “splendid isolation” as neighbouring States have relaxed prohibition.
A policymaker, conscious of several challenges in the implementation of prohibition, still says the concept can be implemented in a qualified manner by which the revenue loss can be absorbed over three or four years. Even while abolishing the existing scheme of retail trade, the government can continue to earn 50 per cent of the revenue it garners from liquor trade by permitting star hotels to serve liquor and distilleries to sell their produce outside the State or export it. The other 50 per cent can be made up by pruning the size of government departments and restructuring welfare schemes.