While a majority of the states are struggling to mitigate the economic losses from the Supreme Court’s ruling to shift bars and liquor retail outlets 500 meters away from national highways, Kerala is facing yet another fear.
It is a fear peculiar to the state, because Kerala, with its high density of population and limited space, will have no option but to shut down its entire liquor industry rather than shift it to the heart of the population.
The state government said that while the Supreme Court judgment, along with the ongoing phased prohibition in the state, will mean a sudden end to an industry, it will open up a Pandora’s Box – a parallel industry that will thrive on drugs and illicit liquor.
That the state is serious about its concerns is reflected in the contents of the affidavit filed by it in the Supreme Court, asking for a three months exemption to the judgment.
"See, 500 meters away from the highway for us is right in the heart of the city. So, where do we take the shops? We will have no option but to shut it down and then where do u think all these regular drinkers will go. It’s a terrible scenario and we are saying this because we have the figures on hand," Kerala’s finance minister Thomas Isaac told Firstpost.
The government certainly has the figures on their side. It was in the year 2013-14 that the former UDF government brought in its new liquor policy whereby, apart from five-star bars, all other watering holes were shut down and a phased prohibition was put in motion by closing a number of retail outlets each year.
From 2014 to 2017, the cases registered under the Narcotic Drugs & Psychotropic Substances Act (NDPS) in the state jumped a whopping four times. What was 960 in 2013-24 before the liquor policy was unleashed on the tipplers in the state, now stands in excess of 3,600 for the last ten months.
The State Excise Commissioner and top cop Rishiraj Singh, who is spearheading the anti-drug drive in the state, said that the situation is certainly going from bad to worse. He said that going by the present trend, the use of drugs in the state is likely to grow at an exponential rate and there is little that can be done to stop it apart from the usual enforcement measures. Singh made it clear that the more the liquor starts disappearing from the state, more is the growing demand for other substitutes.
"The more the use, more the ‘substance’ that is going to come in. We will surely catch more but that will only be a partial percentage of what actually comes in. Everything cannot be caught. There is no age group also. School kids are asking for it so are the grownups and even the migrant labour community that is fast growing," Singh told Firstpost.
In an earlier report, Firstpost had exposed the fast growing drug culture in Kochi.
The lid was blown last year, when close to 300 kg of marijuana was caught in the city in three months. The State Excise and Prohibition Department headed by Singh had also caught 50,000 kg of various narcotic and drug related substances during the same period.
The total figure of the last ten months shows that what happened in Kochi was not an aberration but rather a worrying trend. More than 300 tonnes of narcotic substances have been recovered from various parts of the state and Singh said that it doesn’t seem to be ending fast, especially with an ever growing migrant work population – who are easy carriers for the drugs from other parts of the country.
Will the hooch tragedy return?
Perhaps an old evil is lurking around the corner and with the Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) making way, it could easily sneak in to fill the vacuum. Enforcement officials at the Excise department fear that a hooch tragedy is just around the corner for the state.
According to the state government’s figures, 3.4 lakh litres of contraband liquor has been seized by the state in the last ten months, thrice the amount compared to recent years. While 47,500 litres of country made IMFL topped the list, other prominent high-givers include 29,000 litres of ‘Arishtam’, 18,000 litres of toddy,14,000 litres of illicit liquor, 5,000 litres of Arrack and many others, all under the ‘desi daru’ category.
The state is certainly sitting on a volcano waiting to go off at any moment and all prominent festivals, including Onam and Christmas, are high stake periods. In the same period, the number of cases filed under the Kerala Abkari Act, that prohibits illicit liquor, was a staggering 25,000.
For a state that has seen umpteen number of hooch tragedies between the introduction of IMFL and banning of the arrack, the local variant of the former, officials say the times ahead would be tougher.
Singh said that his team is working overnight to prevent a hooch tragedy in the state but, like elsewhere in the country, he fears that an entire clamp down on liquor will finally drive the state to that end only.
"Let me tell you, a hooch tragedy is waiting to hit Kerala. Prohibition is there in Bihar and Gujarat and hooch tragedies are common there. But because of other circumstances, it is not highlighted. In Kerala, all hell will break lose once one such a tragedy hits us. Till then we will go on with such faulty policies," added Singh.
Ban or no ban, Malayalees will find their drink
A lesson in history is also before the state. It was in 1996 that the then chief minister AK Antony had banned arrack in the state. From then on, the growth of the illicit industry had been so rampant in the state that in 2002, Antony himself admitted in public that the decision was a flop and that Malayalees had found a way to get around the prohibition unabashedly.
Hooch in polyethene bags, cans, cheap bottles and pouches had become the order of the day with tragedies striking the state with alarming regularity during those times. Since the new Supreme Court order, out of 306 odd retail shops runs in the state, 143 have been shut, along with most of the bars in five-star hotels.
Since then, the serpentine queues before the remaining outlets and the law and order problem that it has created at many places only points to the fact that the issue will get out of hand anytime soon. Psychologists who have studied the pattern of tipplers in the state say that a complete non-availability of liquor could send an entire population into chaos.
"See in Kerala, a complete ban or non-availability can cause huge social implications. Obviously, people who have been regularly drinking will look for other means to get high; and drugs, let me tell you, is much more difficult to contain than alcohol once it becomes a habit. This is a terrible situation that is staring at us," Dr KS David, Director of Central Institute of Behavioural Science, told Firstpost.
David also goes on to add that the increasing number of sexual crimes against women and children in the state is a direct fallout of the heavy drug use. The police reports over the last one year, when such crimes were at its highest in the state, also point to this worrying pattern.
But there are others who say that the state can survive with a total ban or non-availability of liquor and that the proliferation of drugs cannot be made a reason not to ban something like alcohol.
"See, even if you agree for argument sake that yes drugs have increased because of alcohol prohibition, we need to ask the state what it is doing to tackle it. It is not as if drugs just came into the picture because liquor went out. They have always been out there. If only we had tackled the menace on time, it would not have prevailed to take over the space alcohol will leave," said CR Neelaknadan, a civil rights activist.
Updated Date: Apr 24, 2017 13:06 PM