In Kerala, the battle over the bottle

Inversely prortional: “The higher the economic and educational status, the lower the level of alcohol consumption.” Toddy being collected in Gopalapuram in Palakkad district in Kerala. Photo: H. Vibhu  

History is against any strong clampdown on liquor consumption, even when there are strong health and socio-economic compulsions to do so. Experience across time and space suggests that liquor curbs only spawn a huge black market for it and often lead to a spike in consumption of more addictive substances. Consequently, most societies that have tried to put an end to liquor consumption have had to quietly, or not so quietly, bury such grandiose hopes and live with the problem of heavy drinking, especially among the poorer sections of society, and the vice-like grip that the liquor mafia wields on the economy and polity.

The United Democratic Front (UDF) government’s ongoing experiment to curb liquor sale and consumption in Kerala is one more thrust upon it than an altruistic endeavour, a case of political one-upmanship becoming policy. The man who almost single-handedly made it happen was Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) president V.M. Sudheeran, who saw an ideal opportunity for decisive intervention when the UDF was up against the question of renewing the licences of 418 out of the 730-odd liquor bars in the State.

With the KPCC chief emerging as the champion of a cause that the rest of the political establishment had always fought shy of, Chief Minister Oommen Chandy found no option but to hit back with even sterner measures than were being advocated by Mr. Sudheeran. The end result was closure of all the 730-odd bars in the State, leaving less than two score five-star hotels and clubs with the freedom to serve liquor. The matter went up to the Supreme Court, but a division bench of the apex court comprising Justices Vikramjit Sen and Shiva Kirti Singh upheld the State government’s authority to curb liquor consumption, terming it “a positive step towards bringing down the consumption of alcohol, or as preparatory to prohibition”.

The UDF leadership has now made it a virtue, turning its goal of bringing in “prohibition in stages” its single major campaign plank for the May 16 Assembly elections. The Chief Minister himself now takes pleasure in engaging the CPI(M) in a debate on the virtues of the UDF’s policy goal of prohibition as opposed to the Left Democratic Front’s (LDF) policy of promoting abstinence which, he reminds them, is no policy at all. Mr. Sudheeran’s stubborn stand and Mr. Chandy’s political gambit appear to be paying off, with opinion polls showing that the UDF’s ‘anti-liquor’ policy has found good traction among women voters, the corruption scandals notwithstanding. The CPI(M)-led Opposition LDF is caught in a classic dilemma here, unable to forswear the policy option, but unwilling to take the same course.

Demography of drinking

Like elsewhere, there has been growing concern in Kerala about the health and societal impact of alcoholism, with a study by community medicine experts in 2014 showing that around 30 per cent of the State’s population aged above 18 are hooked to the bottle, about one-third of them heavy drinkers. Till Mr. Sudheeran arrived on the scene with his prescription, prohibition was an idea which mainstream politicians did little about except pay lip service.

Mapping the demography of drinking in Kerala, experts have pointed out that the relationship between heavy drinking and the economic and educational status of the population is inversely proportional: the higher the economic and educational status, the lower the level of alcohol consumption. “Roughly 40 to 50 per cent of the drinking population in Kerala belong to lower-middle-income or middle-income groups. This is a very serious issue because you are talking about very poor families falling victims to the menace,” says S. Irudaya Rajan, professor, Centre for Development Studies (CDS), Thiruvananthapuram, who had led a study on the demographic profile of tipplers in Kerala. He points out that the propensity to drink is higher when liquor is available nearby and, therefore, the decision to shut down liquor bars could be a game changer. “Some say it will reflect in the voting pattern in the May 16 Assembly election, but I do not wish to hazard any guess on that,” he says.

Hard times for hard liquor

Predictably, there is no agreement between the government and the Opposition on the benefits of bar closure. Initially, the government itself did not appear convinced about proposal to close bars till it became an unavoidable option, but now Mr. Chandy and his team are swearing by it, claiming that consumption of hard liquor has come down in the State by a substantive measure following the clampdown, by around 25 per cent over the past one year. The Opposition has sought to contradict this. “The UDF claim that it has brought down liquor consumption is, to say the least, a lie. There are as many as 806 beer/wine parlours, 306 government-run retail outlets of hard liquor, 33 bars in clubs and 30 five-star hotels. The sale of wine has gone up by 131 per cent and that of beer by 95 per cent. Against 316.7 lakh cases of Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) sold in 2014-15, 355.95 lakh cases were sold from April 2015 to March 2016. So, where is the reduction,” asks Kanam Rajendran, CPI State secretary, pointing out that the revenue from liquor sale has also been on a sharp upswing in the State over the years from Rs.301 crore in 2013 to Rs.11, 000 crore in 2015-16.

However, those involved in the State government’s policy formulation and implementation point out that there are a lot of misconceptions about rate of liquor consumption in Kerala. The State, spread over 36,000 square kilometres, now has only 306 retail liquor outlets, which would work out to just one outlet every 100-110 sq km. In comparison to Kerala, liquor sales in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are growing at a faster clip, mainly on account of the closer proximity of outlets to the consumers. Kerala, they point out, had seen a sharp fall in growth of liquor sale through the official outlets from 16 per cent in 2011-12 to 1 per cent the next year and further to minus 9 per cent in 2015-16. They concede that consumption of beer and wine has indeed gone up, but contend that this should be seen as a positive development in tune with the recommendations made by the A.P. Udayabhanu Commission decades ago.

Multiple flip sides

However, the fall in hard liquor consumption, if at all it’s happened on the scale at which the government claims it has, has also triggered another phenomenon in the State: a flare-up in the use of cannabis and high-end party drugs such as cocaine, LSD, nitrazepam, buprenorphine and methamphetamine, particularly among the younger generation, and the enforcement challenge could be gargantuan given the scale at which the drug abuse trends are being reported from different parts of the State. Police say that the crime pattern of the State itself is getting skewed on account of drug abuse. In Kochi city alone, over 250 drug-related cases have been registered this year, against 782 cases in 2015. “This is a serious issue which needs to be addressed even as we discuss the State’s liquor policy. The high purchasing power of the younger generation is probably contributing to this phenomenon,” says Prof. Irudaya Rajan.

Of equal concern for the administrators and Opposition politicians is the impact that prohibition would have on the State finances. The rise in revenue from liquor sale, as pointed out by Mr. Rajendran, is not entirely an indication of increased consumption. It has a lot to with the increase in sales tax and excise duty. In 2014-15, the government had hiked the sales tax on liquor by 35 per cent and, in 2015-16, jacked up the excise duty by 50 per cent. As a combined result of this, the Kerala State Beverages Corporation, the monopoly IMFL retailer, was able to pass on to the exchequer Rs.9,787 crore by way of sales tax and excise duties out of its annual turnover of Rs.11,577 crore. Revenue from liquor sale constitutes roughly 12 per cent of the total tax receipts of the State government and 25 per cent of the State’s own tax revenue, almost 60 per cent of which goes towards salaries and pensions of State employees and teachers.

While upholding the restrictions on liquor sale in Kerala, the division bench of the Supreme Court had spoken about the right of the “besieged State” to cure itself. Dependence on revenue from liquor contributed mostly by the poor is something that has led to this self-inflicted state of siege and makes curative interventions appear inevitable. What Kerala witnesses this election season is a heady debate on whether prohibition, with its unpredictable consequences, is the answer to that social, political and economic challenge.


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Printable version | Apr 30, 2021 10:07:03 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/in-kerala-the-battle-over-the-bottle/article8566425.ece

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