Kerala heading for complete prohibition: Will ban on booze help Chandy?

It may sound ironical that little Kerala, which has the dubious distinction of being the highest per capita consumer of alcohol in the country, has begun on a historic journey towards complete prohibition.

Egged on by his party chief in the state and alliance partners such as the Muslim League and the Christian dominated Kerala Congress, chief minister Oommen Chandy declared on Thursday that the state will not have any bars except in five star hotels. The retail liquor outlets of the Beverages Corporation, which has a complete monopoly in selling liquor in the state, will be reduced by ten percent every year so that in ten years, nobody will be able to buy liquor in the state.

In other words, in ten years, Kerala will be a dry state, like Gujarat.

Remember, Kerala government is heavily reliant on the taxes from liquor and tourism for its survival. Will tourists be happy without a key source of recreation?

For people outside the state, this might be an unusual or rather bizarre decision because drinking is part of the mainstream culture in the state. The neon-lit bar signs and long queues in front of the Beverages Corporation outlets are part and parcel of the state’s imagery. More over, Kerala’s unrivalled per capita alcohol consumption has been a national story for a decade. And suddenly the government deciding that state is better off dry evokes considerable curiosity, particularly among people from outside the state.

 Kerala heading for complete prohibition: Will ban on booze help Chandy?

Representational image. Agencies.

The decision is clearly more political than ideological. Although there has been pressure from several quarters, including from the Church, for total prohibition, till recently there had never been a widespread discussion on the issue in the state. Even advocates of prohibition were apprehensive because some limited steps that former chief minister AK Antony had imposed in the nineties had backfired.

So where does this idea come up from suddenly?

All the credit for this - making prohibition a political headache for the Oomen Chandy government - should go to the chief of the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) President VM Sudheeran, a nominee of Sonia Gandhi. When there was pressure on the government to reopen 418 bars that it had closed because they failed to qualify for a renewal of license, Sudheeran was hell bent that they couldn’t be opened.

There were protests, some sponsored by the Communists, by retrenched employees against this move and the government appeared vacillating, but Sudheeran stood his ground. In no time, perhaps sensing his one upmanship, others also joined the bandwagon. The home minster Ramesh Chennithala also became a votary of prohibition.

The Muslim League and the Kerala Congress too joined the chorus for prohibition. While the latter appeared less firm, the Muslim League said they wouldn’t allow the reopening of the bars and that they wanted complete prohibition. Finally, the entire the UDF seemed to have favoured the idea of prohibition.

What tipped the situation on Thursday was Oomen Chandy’s overzealousness in not to let Sudheeran take the credit for any decision on the issue. Reportedly, at a United Democratic Front (UDF) meeting he came with a prepared text, presented it and got it approved. Some of his close confidantes had seen the draft that he had prepared, but not Sudheeran. Chandy will now be the hero of prohibition in the state, whether it’s going to work or not.

It’s going to be an extremely tough call both in terms of loss of revenue and rehabilitation of the workers employed by the alcohol sector. Liquor sales give about Rs 6000 crore to the state exchequer every year. Although the liquor sales through the retails shops will continue - with a progressive reduction of 10 percent every year - closure of bars will result in an annual loss of about Rs 2500 crore. Where will the state find alternative sources of funding when one fourth of the sales tax receipts, its main revenue earner, is shut down?

The cultural shift of a binge drinker going sober will be even more challenging. In 2013-14, the state sold about 240 lakh cases of indian made foreign liquor. Can social drinking disappear overnight? More over, the liquor sector is dominated politically powerful communities which will be out of business with the government decision.

The experiences from other prohibition states such as Gujarat, Nagaland, Manipur and Lakshadweep point to the possible failures in prohibition because when habits don’t change, the lack of supplies will be met by smuggling and spurious liquor. Although Gujarat doesn’t have a culture of drinking as Kerala has, apparently liquor is available if one is desperate to drink. There is enough that is flowing in from states such as Punjab. Similarly, visitors to Nagaland and Manipur vouch for the availability of various types of liquor, including local brews, despite total prohibition.

Will Kerala, ever be the same without its liquor? Culturally it will be an impossible tectonic shift, and financially, the government will be in doldrums. The biggest of all challenges will be law enforcement because world over, prohibition has always led to the rise of a criminal syndicate which profiteers from it.

Updated Date: Aug 22, 2014 12:23:23 IST