Don’t bar TASMAC, regulate it

With no discernable wave sweeping anyone to power this election in Tamil Nadu, the defining narratives seem to be prohibition and the fate of the third front. The > debate on prohibition has gathered momentum over the past week with the two biggest political parties, the > All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the > Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, promising to make Tamil Nadu a dry State, signalling the beginning of the end of the Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation (TASMAC). Early indications are that the battle over prohibition this election will be won in the nuances: a desperate-to-win DMK has pitched for immediate implementation while the AIADMK, careful not to abandon a cash cow so abruptly, has said it will implement prohibition in phases.

A comparison of the AIADMK’s proposals with the > DMK’s manifesto shows that the ruling party has a well thought-out plan. Chief Minister >Jayalalithaa’s speech in Chennai on April 9 made her party’s prohibition pitch seem like a public health policy rather than a pre-election necessity. Among other things, she spoke of reducing the working hours of TASMAC outlets, closing them in phases, shutting the much-maligned TASMAC-attached bars, and opening rehabilitation centres. Meanwhile, the DMK has offered to rehabilitate the 28,000-odd TASMAC employees within a newly formed Tamil Nadu Integrated Regulated Marketing Corporation. The party says it will “formulate schemes” to compensate the revenue loss from prohibition, and open de-addiction centres in every district.

Alcohol consumption in Tamil Nadu
There is hope in Ms. Jayalalithaa’s comments but the plan may work better if she abandons it midway, as total prohibition has never worked, including the multiple ones in Tamil Nadu.

However, bringing down the number of TASMAC outlets could be useful. The National Family Health Surveys (NFHS)indicate how pervasive alcohol consumption is in Tamil Nadu. With 46.7 per cent of males reporting that they consume alcohol, the State is sixth on a list of 17 States and Union Territories surveyed for NFHS 2015-2016. The last round of NHFS had recorded that 41.5 per cent of Tamil Nadu’s men consume alcohol, against the national average of 32 per cent; the latest round has an average of 39.7 per cent for the 17 States and UTs. The electorate’s demand for prohibition is partly fuelled by the sheer visibility of these outlets. Tamil Nadu has a huge number of them: 6,826. There are 3,877 licensed bars attached to them. Its inability to close down the 2,000-odd unlicensed bars shows that the task of enforcing total prohibition is far from simple. This moment may be remembered as an anti-TASMAC rather than as a temperance phase.

The number of > TASMAC shops might be far too many, but they have successfully kept low-quality liquor at bay. They are not given enough credit for this. In fact, according to the National Sample Survey Organisation’s 2011-2012 consumption data, the State holds the 12th position in consumption of beer and Indian-Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL). The NSSO’s finding makes the State look good — following Lakshadweep, Tamilians consume the least toddy and country liquor. This shows that apart from providing liquor at competitive prices, the State, with the added incentive of revenue, works overtime to keep illicit products out.

TASMAC is also a leveller. Tamil Nadu has the third least rural-urban divide among the 17 States and UTs, at 1.4 per cent. In 2005-2006, less than two years after TASMAC took over the retail sales of alcoholic beverages in the State, it was 4.6 per cent; people in the rural areas consumed more in both instances.

The question of revenue will arise if total prohibition is rolled back. It was not the rise of organised crime that felled prohibition in the U.S., it was the Great Depression and the need for additional revenue. Fiscal considerations were a factor when both Haryana and Andhra Pradesh rolled back prohibition laws. Tamil Nadu has a huge revenue deficit of Rs. 9,154 crore. Over 30 per cent of the State’s revenue comes from TASMAC sales. The support for prohibition may not last long if the electorate, used to freebies, begins to correlate the absence of these goods with disappearing TASMAC outlets. New taxes will have to be introduced or existing ones raised.

This is not to say that total prohibition will not have desirable effects even if it is implemented for a short period. Depending on how long it is imposed, prohibition can lower per capita consumption of alcohol. Thirteen years of the ban meant that alcohol consumption in the U.S. touched pre-prohibition levels again only by the 1970s.

Consequences of prohibition

However, policymakers will have no control over the consequences of prohibition. More women began drinking in the U.S. as prohibition destroyed the saloon culture. Alcoholics Anonymous was formed and crime went up. Even as the Supreme Court upheld the Kerala government’s policy of restricting liquor bar licences to five-star hotels, this model of phasing out alcohol by limiting access only to the rich is divisive. The debate on prohibition in Tamil Nadu has revolved around TASMAC outlets so far; political parties have not yet spoken out on hotels that serve alcohol. A DMK functionary told this writer that the party studied the Kerala Bar Hotels Association case before spelling out its policy in its manifesto.

Tamil Nadu’s political parties have left themselves with little wiggle room by committing themselves to a prohibition wave that is beginning to sweep the country. Both parties in question have been part of the cycle of implementing and relaxing the policy, showing their ambivalence towards the issue. What they can do is to have a Plan B. They could begin with letting TASMAC survive and reinvent itself as a tool of alcohol regulation.

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Printable version | Sep 28, 2021 2:11:04 AM |

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