Tamil Nadu anti-liquor protesters are making state govt coffers run dry

Last April, I was witness to an agitation, that had been staged the classical Gandhian way for over three months. Women from both Kerala and Tamil Nadu were jointly opposing TASMAC (Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation, owned by the state government that has a monopoly over the liquor trade) shop number 2222 in Anaikatty in Coimbatore district.

The shop was located a stone's throw away from the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border, which made it a favourite haunt for tribal men from Kerala where partial prohibition has been in force. Over 60 percent of the shop's sales were to tipplers from Kerala.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

Forcing the government to shut shop wasn't easy because, with liquor sales between Rs 3 to 4 lakh everyday, it was one of the highest revenue generators in Tamil Nadu. But women on both sides of the border saw it as the villain in their life. Though shopkeepers in the market place were unhappy about a footfall drop in Anaikatty after the shop's closure, women power finally won the day.

Political parties realised the disgust among women for Tamil Nadu's aggressive liquor policy where IAS officers are routinely given targets to achieve maximum sales and are under constant pressure to sell more.

But though total prohibition was promised by all parties except AIADMK in the Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu last year, Jayalalithaa returned to power. What she did, however, was to promise to shut shops in a phased manner. Of the 283 liquor shops in Coimbatore for instance, 16 were terminated this February. So far, 1,000 of the 6,700 shops have been shut in Tamil Nadu.

But subsequent to the Supreme court ban on the sale of liquor in a shop, located less than 500 from a National Highway, the attempt by the state government to circumvent it by allowing shops to shift to residential areas has meant women in Tamil Nadu no longer have the appetite for Gandhian methods.

Over the past few days, protesters have vandalised and broken liquor bottles to force the outlets to abandon their plans. And these protests aren't limited to a particular district. Though from a political point of view, it will worry the ruling party as the majority of the protests are in the western part of the state, the Kongu belt that sent 47 of the 136 AIADMK MLAs to the Tamil Nadu Assembly.

On 23 April, a group of 28 people, including 17 women vandalised a newly-opened TASMAC shop in Mecheri in Salem, Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswamy's home district. For a week, they had been protesting against the move to shift location after the court order. When the shop was opened despite the peaceful agitation, they turned into vandals, damaging property worth Rs 1.24 lakh. All the protesters were arrested.

This Wednesday, a larger crowd of about one thousand people brought down a TASMAC outlet in Tiruppur district. The textile hometown of Tamil Nadu had witnessed trouble on 12 April as well when a senior cop assaulted a woman protester leading to stone-pelting at police vehicles and the police resorting to lathicharge in retaliation.

Protests have been reported also from Sulur in Coimbatore and Kancheerpuram and Thiruvallur near Chennai. The anger is directed at the Tamil Nadu government which clearly does not wish to give up on the Rs 26,000 crore annual revenue from TASMAC. The people are also aware that bigwigs in both the AIADMK and DMK leaders have their hands in the alcohol business which explains the desperation to let the liquor flow.

The government has tried to help open the closed liquor outlets on Highways by denotifying them as municipal and corporation roads. The only relief for the protesters has come by way of a Madras High court order that has asked the government not to open the shops on Highways for the next three months.

The development could not have come at a worse time for the Tamil Nadu government, already struggling on various fronts. With 30 percent of the state's revenue coming from the liquor business, closure of 3,300 of the 5,700 has meant more than 50 percent of the existing revenue has disappeared into thin air. This means the government will no longer have the funds to buy power during the peak summer season, continue with its social welfare schemes, recruit more staff and more. All this when the industrial climate and the realty sector in Tamil Nadu are hardly looking up, with the worst drought in 140 years bringing in misery to people in the countryside.

But it is not as if protests did not take place earlier. Anti-substance abuse activist A Narayanan who documented about 200 protests in his petition before the court in 2013 says the difference is that the protests have become more aggressive.

"Earlier since Jayalalithaa was seen as a tough chief minister who would use the police, the protests were muted. Now with no government practically in the state, the people's anger is coming to the fore,'' says Narayanan.

What this will mean is that the Tamil Nadu establishment will have to tighten its belt, be frugal in its expenditure and eschew the freebie culture. In a nutshell, Tamil Nadu's finances are in deep trouble.

Unfortunately, the atmosphere of political uncertainty has meant no thought has gone into how Tamil Nadu can get out of this hand to mouth existence without taking some hard decisions. The state has to urgently look at other avenues for raising revenues. With an estimated Rs 3.14 lakh crore debt by 2017-18, it cannot get more critical for Tamil Nadu.

Will the protests against liquor outlets gradually turn Tamil Nadu into a partially dry state? Given the unprecedented manner in which people came out on the streets for Jallikattu and assorted issues in Chennai in January, Tamil Nadu in its re-discovered avatar is one state best not to predict.

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Updated Date: Apr 27, 2017 18:15:14 IST

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