Contentious issues revolving around its operations still remain pertinent
It was in October, 2003, that the State government amended the Tamil Nadu Prohibition Act, 1937, and decided to take over retail sales of Indian made foreign liquor (IMFL) liquor from private players. Ten years have passed since then but contentious issues revolving around the functioning of government-owned liquor outlets remain unchanged.
Of the 6,835 outlets managed by Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation across the State and over 27,000 people employed in those shops, 321 shops and around 1,400 employees are in Madurai district. Most of these shops and bars attached to them often find themselves in the midst of a storm for violation of rules.
The Tamil Nadu Liquor Retail Vending (In Shops and Bars) Rules, 2003, states that every bar attached to a liquor shop must be housed in a ‘pucca’ building and the bar must be sufficiently screened so that consumption of liquor is not visible from outside.
It also states that sufficient number of tables and chairs must be provided inside the bars.
“These rules are only on paper,” says S. Hariharan (name changed), a resident of Krishna Nadhi Street in Krishnapuram Colony here where a TASMAC bar had been functioning with tin sheets serving as roof and walls.
“The door of the bar, situated adjacent to the compound wall of a cremation ground, remains open all through the day and it leads to a lot of nuisance,” he adds.
His wife complains that it is the women, young girls and children who face a great deal of difficulty in passing through the street as the drunk spill over into the street, especially during Sundays, and tease the passersby.
“They also sit on the stairways leading to the houses in the street, throw away liquor bottles here and there and indulge in all sorts of indecent activities,” she laments.
Further, the TNLRV (In Shops and Bars) Rules state that every liquor shop must display a signboard with slogans such as ‘Liquor ruins country, family and life’ in bold letters. And the licence granted by TASMAC to individual liquor shops states that it is illegal to display any kind of advertisement soliciting the use of or offering of any liquor in the licensed premises.
“People like me are not even aware of such rules and regulations. I have only seen anti-liquor slogans written in as small letters as possible in the shops amid blown-up posters of actors,” says T. Ravi, an autorickshaw driver on West Perumal Maistry Street where one can see the picture of a woman drinking beer outside a TASMAC bar.
Advocate R. Venkatesan says the TNLRV (In Shops and Bars) Rules contain very few regulations to safeguard the interests of common people from the drunk and it is ironical that even those interests were not being followed properly.
The rules state that no liquor shop should be set up near places of worship and educational institutions.
However, the same rules define the term ‘educational institution’ to mean a place where there is regular conduct of classes and includes schools, polytechnics, Industrial Training Institutes and colleges but do not include tutorial institutes. Similarly, religious structures on roadsides, pavements and on the compound wall of buildings have been excluded from the definition of ‘places of worship.’
“The rules also contain a clause which states that a liquor shop won’t be shifted if a place of worship comes into existence after the former’s establishment. Such clauses make the rules farcical. If not for the judiciary which had gone beyond the rules and ordered shifting of a number of shops on the ground of nuisance in the last few years, liquor shops would have become like tea shops,” he adds.
B. Arivanandam, a regular customer of a TASMAC bar near Goripalayam junction here, says though the sale of liquor had been taken over the by the government, the bars remain to be leased out to private parties. “The hygienic conditions in the bars are far from satisfactory. They stink and people like me put up with them because we cannot afford to visit permit rooms attached to big hotels,” he reasons.
The Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006, requires every eatery to be maintained hygienically. J. Suguna, Designated Officer for Food Safety says, “The TASMAC bars also come under the purview of the Act but they have not yet begun obtaining licence from us under the 2006-Act. Yet, if we receive specific complaints, we do have the authority to inspect the bars and punish the offenders.”
The other complaint lodged by regular customers of TASMAC shops is that of the liquor bottles being sold for prices higher than the Maximum Retail Price.
Reacting to it, D. Sivakumar of TASMAC Employees’ Association, says thousands of those who got employed in TASMAC in 2003 on a consolidated pay were performing their duties without giving room for any complaints until 2005.
“Then, we hoped that the government would absorb us as permanent employees. But even after a decade, we continue to be working as contract labourers. People are hired and fired at will. We are treated like slaves despite helping TASMAC to augment its revenue from Rs. 3,639.93 crore in the financial year 2003-04 to Rs.21,680.67 crore in 2012-13,” he adds.
P. Saravanan, State president of Tamil Nadu TASMAC Employees Union, says delay in regularisation was paving way for irregularities. He points out that the monthly salary of the employees ranging from Assistant Salesmen to Supervisors was between Rs. 1,500 to Rs. 3,000 in 2003. It was now in the range of Rs.3,000 to Rs. 6,000.
“It is impossible for a person to maintain his family with such a meagre salary and that is why they are forced to involve in misdeeds,” he says.
T. Pitchiah, Senior Regional Manager of TASMAC here, says flying squads had been formed to keep a check on irregularities in the liquor shops and bars attached to them.
“The squads have been conducting inspections regularly and disciplinary action was being initiated against erring employees,” he asserts.
N. Karunakaran, Madurai (urban) district president of Gandhiya Makkal Iyakkam, a forum in favour of total prohibition in the State, feels the solution to numerous ills plaguing TASMAC is the closure of all liquor shops in the State.
Liquor shops run by the State has only ruined many happy families and made the youth addicted to booze, he adds.
Rule 11-A of the TNLRV Rules states that liquor should not be sold or served to any person below the age of 21 years.
Where any doubt arises with regard to the age, the salesmen in the shop should ask the person concerned to produce documentary evidence issued by the Centre or the State government or educational institution or the local authority for proof of age.
“Contrary to the rules, I have been witness to school students in uniform buying liquor bottles and stuffing them into their pockets. I have seen even women buying liquor at TASMAC shops. It is heart rending to see such scenes in Madurai, a historical place which had been associated closely with the life of Mahatma Gandhi, a die-hard supporter of total prohibition,” Mr. Karunakaran rues.
Pointing out that the government cannot be running liquor shops in the guise of preventing sale of illicit arrack, he says, “One wrong act cannot be used as a shield to perpetrate another wrong act.”