On April 9, 2016, while kicking off the AIADMK’s campaign seeking a second term, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa >announced that her government will implement prohibition in a phased manner if her party is voted to power. The DMK in its election manifesto released on Sunday promises total prohibition in the State. The P-word is likely to figure in the manifestos of all major political parties and alliances.
Prohibition has taken centre stage in the 2016 Tamil Nadu Assembly polls, after a series of protests in 2015. Parties such as the PMK and the MDMK have consistently demanded total prohibition in the State. Former Union Minister Anbumani Ramadoss, the CM candidate of the PMK, in his ‘ >blueprint for development ’ not only mentions closure of government-run liquor shops, but also claims to have alternative revenue sources to offset revenue loss from prohibition.
Tamil Nadu was probably the first State to have a blanket ban on liquor. Today, several of the State’s welfare measures are funded by the revenue earned through liquor sale.
The Prohibition Act
The erstwhile Madras Presidency had implemented prohibition in Salem district as early as 1937 and gradually expanded it to several other areas. In order to compensate the loss incurred, sales tax was introduced by the Congress government headed by C. Rajagopalachari aka Rajaji. The government would grant ‘permits’ to individuals, who wish to consume liquor.
After the first general elections for free India in 1952, the Congress came to power in Tamil Nadu. The Prohibition Act was enforced throughout the State. Tamil Nadu continued to impose prohibition, while Andhra Pradesh and Mysore (later renamed as Karnataka), which were carved out of Madras Presidency, did not have any such restrictions on alcohol.
When liquor came back to TN
In 1971, the DMK government headed by M. Karunanidhi lifted prohibition, despite stiff opposition from many quarters, including Rajaji, who >unsuccessfully attempted to persuade the then chief minister against reintroduction of liquor.
Mr. Karunanidhi’s argument was that while he was always for prohibition, since it was not enforced across the nation, the State was only incurring loss of revenue and liquor was always available to the people from the neighbouring States. He brought back prohibition in 1974. Decades later, Mr. Karunanidhi has now vowed to bring back total prohibition, if voted to power.
The rule of AIADMK founder M.G. Ramachandran (MGR) that succeeded the DMK regime of Mr. Karunanidhi lifted prohibition in 1981, only to close down all arrack and toddy shops early in 1987. Successive governments tweaked the policy on sale of arrack and toddy, but the policy by and large left Indian-Made Foreign Liquor untouched. Whenever prohibition was imposed, the illegal sale of toddy and arrack would peak, resulting in loss of several lives, and thus paving way for lifting the ban.
Another prominent reason given for lifting curbs on liquor sales was rampant increase consumption of methanol, an industrial solvent. In January 2002, the Tamil Nadu government under >O. Panneerselvam started selling low-cost liquor after over 100 people died the previous year due to methanol consumption. Low-cost liquor was, in fact, sold in the 1990s by the government.
The birth of TASMAC
In 1983, the MGR government established the Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation for procurement and selling of alcohol in the State. Licenses to liquor-selling outlets and bars were granted through auctions. Incidentally, in 1981, the government created Tamil Nadu Spirit Corporation too and manufactured liquor until 1987, when the company was shut down.
When Ms. Jayalalithaa came back to power in 2002, she not only cancelled her predecessor Mr. Panneerselvam’s order on cheap liquor, but also brought the retail sales of alcohol under government control. This move gave TASMAC monopoly over liquor sales in Tamil Nadu.
The TASMAC is governed by a board of five IAS officers, including a Managing Director, and the State Minister for Excise and Prohibition. The company earns revenue not only from liquor sales but also by granting annual licences to run bars near its retail outlets.
According to its >website , the TASMAC has 41 depots in five regions and runs over 6,800 retail outlets across the State. It procures beer locally from three manufacturers and hard liquor from six manufacturers. Certain alcohol products are imported from other States.
The annual revenue of TASMAC stood at Rs. 26,188 crores in FY 2014-15. >According to government data , more than 70 lakh people consume liquor every day through TASMAC outlets. In January 2016, the company sold 48.23 lakh cases of liquor.
From mass to class
Targetting the upmarket segment, the company opened its first premium outlet, TASMAC Elite, inside a shopping mall in Chennai in 2013. There are plans to open over 450 Elite outlets in urban and semi-urban areas in every district. Sources earlier told The Hindu that >TASMAC is likely to come up with beer-vending machines and Rest-O-Bars too.
There was a time when alcohol consumption was linked to antagonists and Tamil cinema ‘heroes’ would avoid drinking on-screen. MGR the chief minister might have had a different stand on prohibition, but MGR the actor never drank on-screen.
In the Tamil movie Neenga nalla irukkanum, which deals with alcohol addiction, the then chief minister Jayalalithaa played herself. Her government would help a woman rehabilitate her alcoholic husband.
But, TASMAC has replaced ‘wine shops’, the slang to denote retail IMFL outlets. These days, Tamil protagonists and female leads do not shy away from drinking on-screen. It is common to have words such as ‘party’, ‘drinking’, ‘open the bottle,’ ‘ thanni’, ‘kudi’ and ‘TASMAC’ in Tamil film songs. There is even a Tamil cinema named Madhubaanakadai .
Also read: >Camphor in a ring of fire
While political parties such as the PMK and the MDMK were consistent in demanding a total prohibition, they often protested against setting up new TASMAC outlets and the recent TASMAC Elite. Gandhian movements, women’s groups and civil society have voiced against more individuals, especially youths, being lured into alcohol consumption. But three recent agitations are worth mentioning in the anti-alcohol fight.
> Kalingapatti agitation> In August 2015, residents of Kalingapatti, a village in Tirunelveli district, tried to lock down a TASMAC outlet functioning there. The village is the hometown on MDMK chief and coordinator of the People’s Welfare Front (PWF) Vaiko. The protest was lead by his nonagenarian mother Mariammal. When protestors tried to ransack the outlet, police resorted to lathi-charge and fired tear gas. The Kalingapatti Panchayat, earlier passed a resolution demanding closure of the liquor shop. Workers of the VCK, an ally of MDMK, too joined in later.
Also read: >Interview with Vaiko - ‘We need total prohibition’
> Gandhian Sasi Perumal’s death
Ever since the TASMAC’s outlet was opened in 2012 near a school and a church, the residents of Unnaamalaikkadai in Kanyakumari district have been demanding its closure. Fifty nine year old Gandhian and anti-liquor activist Sasi Perumal joined their protest, which went to 1000th day on June 30, 2015. During the protest on July 31, Perumal climbed up a mobile phone tower and began losing his consciousness in the high altitude and was rescued and rushed to a government hospital, where he breathed his last. Following his death, protests erupted across the state targeting TASMAC outlets.
Government had to give police protection to these shops. The outlet in Unnaamalaikkadai was shut down immediately after Perumal’s death, but only to be reopened few days later.
On October 30, 2015, police arrested Kovan alias Sivadas, a folk singer and a member of extreme Left group Makkal Kalai Iyakkam, who was criticising government’s way of earning revenue by selling liquor. He was slapped with sedition charges claiming that his songs were anti-state and criticised Ms. Jayalalithaa. Most of the opposition parties rallied behind Kovan and sought his immediate release. Kovan is now out on bail.
Prohibition in other States
Anti-liquor campaign is not restricted to Tamil Nadu alone. Though Gujarat is popularly known as the ‘dry state of India’, Nagaland and Lakshadweep too have implemented total prohibition.
Bihar>banned sale and consumption of liquor from April 1.
Manipur , which was under total prohibition until 2014, >lifted curbs in select areas.
Kerala is >in the process of phasing out liquor . It was the only other State, where a government-owned corporation sold liquor.
Haryana tried its luck in bringing total prohibition in 1996. The >move affected the government revenue to the tune of Rs. 1200 crore. The State suffered loss of over 20,000 jobs as breweries were closed down. The Haryana Vikas Party-led government introduced more taxes. As a result the party lost the the 1998 parliamentary elections. The same year it lifted the liquor ban.