When the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) took an ambiguous stand on re-opening liquor bars closed by the United Democratic Front (UDF) government as part of its phased-prohibition policy during the 2016 Assembly elections in Kerala, many had viewed it as a sign of the party's intention to reverse liquor policy if it returned to power in the state.
True to their fears, the LDF prepared the ground for a change in the policy as soon as they assumed power. It came in the form of a plea from tourism minister AC Moideen to open the closed bars at least in tourist destinations. Excise Minister TP Ramakrishnan picked up the thread from him and promised consideration of the plea when he formulates the liquor policy for the new Abkari year. Curiously, the draft policy went beyond what his colleague actually demanded.
The announcement of the policy allowing the reopening of all closed bars in three-star hotels and above, however, was deferred following the declaration of Lok Sabha by-election in Malappuram in March. By the time Ramakrishnan came out with the policy (in June), the 31 March Supreme Court verdict ban on the sale of liquor within 500 meters of state and national highways came on the way.
The government sought to overcome the hurdle by paving the way for the relocation of liquor outlets to interior areas. Anticipating objections from local bodies, especially those ruled by the Opposition, the government stripped them of the power to sanction liquor outlets in their jurisdiction through an ordinance.
In spite of all this, only 77 of the over 700 closed bars could be reopened till July end. The government facilitated reopening of another 219 closed bars by de-notifying stretches of state highways passing through municipal areas. The government will be in a position to reopen the closed bars along national highways too following the recent apex court clarification that state and national highways passing through municipal limits will be exempt from its earlier ruling.
Around 1956 liquor outlets, including toddy shops, were shut down as a result of the 31 March Supreme Court order. This included 11 five star bars, 619 beer and wine parlours as well as 134 retail outlets of the Kerala State Beverages Corporation (Bevco), the sole wholesale and retail distributor of Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) in the state.
According to a Manorama Online report, the state government has given its nod for opening 466 liquor outlets, including 25 Bevco outlets within municipal and corporation limits, in the wake of the apex court clarification.
This literally marks an end to Kerala’s brief journey to become a dry state by 2023. The previous government had in September 2014 sought to turn the state totally dry like Gujarat by shutting down all bars immediately and retail outlets within ten years.
The UDF went to the people in May 2016 challenging the LDF to make its stand clear on the policy. However, the LDF sought to play safe by placating both the prohibitionists and the boozers despite pressures from all quarters, including CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury, to state that the LDF will not reopen the closed bars if they come to power.
The crushing defeat that the UDF suffered in the elections forced the proponents of total prohibition to retreat. This made the job easy for the present government. Barring former Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) president VM Sudheeran, who incidentally forced then chief minister Oommen Chandy to announce phased prohibition, none in Congress have come out against the reversal of their policy by the present government.
Curiously, Sudheeran has chosen the legal route to restrain the LDF government from reopening closed bars as he could not muster enough support from within the UDF to mobilise the people. The petition he filed in the Supreme Court may not even stand as his plea was against an alleged violation of its order on the sale of liquor along the highways, a matter already clarified by the apex court.
The Congress had earlier alleged a deal between the LDF and the bar owners to reopen the closed bars. Many in the party even believed that the liquor barons had used their money power to oust the UDF from power.
The UDF's silence on the reopening of bars can be attributed to the defeat they have suffered in the Assembly election, but what has amused the prohibitionists is the silence maintained by the Kerala church, which was very vocal against liquor. The Madhya Virudha Samithi (MVS) of Kerala Catholic Bishops Council (KCBC) had batted for prohibition by threatening to use their votes to defeat those who opposed prohibition.
The church body was a mute spectator when the government step-by-step reversed the liquor policy they supported. Though MVS had threatened to stage a dharna in front of all reopened bars across the state, it confined its protests to a few statements and a token dharna in Ernakulam.
"What is the use in chanting a mantra to a buffalo?” was the immediate response of MVS general secretary Fr TJ Antony when Firstpost sought his reaction on the reopening of bars. He said they were sure that the LDF will reverse the policy.
"The LDF was hand in glove with the liquor barons. There was a clear understanding between the two on the reopening of the bars before the election. The LDF government is acting on the understanding. We cannot do anything to stop them,” Antony said while expressing his helplessness.
The priest said that the only option before the church was to move the court, which had endorsed the liquor policy of the previous government. Antony said he will consult the leaders of MVS and a take a decision on the future course of action soon.
However, church activists see more to the issue than meets the eye. Reji Njallani, chairman of Open Church Movement, said that the protests being launched by the church were part of the pressure tactics that the latter has been adopting from time to time to "gain favours from the government".
"The church's silence on the liquor issue may have a connection with the liberal stance that the government took in conceding the demand of self-financing medical colleges for fees and the appointments of teachers in government-aided schools," Njallani told Firstpost.
A report in a local daily claimed that the government bought the Church’s silence on the reopening of bars with a threat to cancel the previous government’s decision to recognise the appointments of 1,796 teachers in government-aided schools and leave the selection of teachers to the Public Service Commission.
The newspaper argued that the church could not ignore the threat as a majority of the government-aided schools in the state are under its control. Appointment of teachers is a major source of income for government-aided schools as the management allegedly takes lakhs of rupees from candidates for regular appointments. The current rate for an appointment is Rs 25 lakhs, according to the report in the daily.
Antony said that he was not aware of such a deal. He claimed that the prohibition wing of the church was working as an independent agency and it had nothing to do with the government-aided schools.
However, some indications of a deal were visible in the budget session of the state Assembly in March this year, when the government ruled out any moves to entrust the selection of teachers with the PSC. Incidentally, it was a strong demand of both the CPM and its number two partner — Communist Party of India (CPI) — while they were in Opposition.
Both the parties had been demanding this since the salary of government-aided teachers is given by the government. The CPI had raised the issue in the budget session. Education minister C Raveendranath evaded the issue stating that the government had not taken a policy decision on the issue.
CPI MLA C Divakaran, who raised the issue, argued that if the teachers of government-aided schools are getting the salary from the government, the appointments must also be made by a government agency. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan kept mum when Divakaran grilled the minister.
The meek surrender of the prohibition lobby before the government has indeed cheered the boozers, who, earlier, had to stand in a long queue before Bevco outlets to get their quota of booze.
Updated Date: Aug 28, 2017 08:26 AM