New on my other blogs

KERALA LETTER
Change of heart? Or stooping to conquer?
Some thoughts on the historic Battle of Colachel
Supreme Court accepts idea of new Mullaperiyar tunnel
Campaign to save a 125-year-old school and its tree wealth

വായന
പ്രസാർ ഭാരതിയുടെ പതനങ്ങൾ
വൈകുന്ന കോടതി നടപടികൾ
സൽമാൻ എന്തിനാണ് ജയിലിൽ കിടക്കുന്നത്
ടെലിവിഷൻ കാലത്തെ മലയാളി ജീവിതം
നമുക്ക് വഴി തെറ്റിയത് എങ്ങനെ, എവിടെ?

21 October, 2014

Modi in for a long innings

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Those who saw the Bharatiya Janata Party’s lacklustre performance in the September by-elections as a sign that the Modi wave, which swept it into power at the Centre in May, was petering out have been proved wrong.

In last week’s State Assembly elections it won an absolute majority in Haryana and secured near-majority in Maharashtra. In both states it boosted its vote share substantially — from 9.04 per cent to 33.2 per cent in Haryana and from 14.2 per cent to 27.8 per cent in Maharashtra.

Both the states will now have BJP chief ministers for the first time. The party was a junior partner of the Shiv Sena in the coalition which ruled Maharashtra between 1995 and 1999. Although the alliance continued even afterwards, power eluded the Hindutva pair. This time, as the party which holds the reins at the Centre, the BJP was unwilling to play second fiddle to the Shiv Sena. This led to breakdown of the coalition

The Congress-National Congress Party alliance, which ruled the state continuously for 15 years, also broke down before the elections, resulting in a virtual free-for-all.

The Shiv Sena and the NCP ended their partnerships thinking they will be able to improve their position and drive a better bargain after the elections. The results dashed their hopes.

Even though the Shiv Sena, which had 44 seats in the 288-member house, raised its strength to 63, the BJP confounded it by raising its strength from 46 to 122 — just 22 short of the half-way mark.

The Congress party’s strength fell from 82 to 42 and the NCP’s from 62 to 41. In a bid to make the best out of the situation, NCP leader Praful Patel offered to support a BJP government from outside. The BJP responded coolly to the unsolicited offer.

The BJP had a good case when it sought more seats from the Shiv Sena since it had a higher success rate in both the 2009 Assembly elections and the recent Lok Sabha elections. In the 2009 Assembly elections the Sena contested 160 seats and the BJP 119. The BJP won 46, but the Sena could win only 44. In this year’s Lok Sabha elections, too, as the major partner, the Sena contested more seats than the BJP but it could win only 18 seats as against the BJP’s 23.

Uddhav Thackeray, who became head of the Shiv Sena on the death of his father Bal Thackeray, the founder of the party, was not ready to give up its primacy in the coalition as he was keen to become the chief minister. When he rejected a suggestion that the two parties share seats equally, the BJP decided to go it alone.

Modi, who was the BJP’s main campaigner, concentrated his attacks on the Congress and the NCP. He tactfully refrained from attacking the Shiv Sena. “This is the first election in the absence of Bal Thackeray, for whom I have great respect,” he said. “I have decided not to utter a single word against the Shiv Sena. That is my tribute to Balasaheb Thackeray.”

Once Uddhav Thackeray gets over the frustration over his party’s loss of primacy in the state to the BJP he is sure to realise that his best option now lies in coming to terms with its reduced status and reviving the alliance with the BJP as the senior partner. That will spare the BJP the awkward situation of having to accept the NCP’s support to form the government.

The Congress had hoped to do well in these elections as both Maharashtra and Haryana prospered under the coalition governments led by it. However, the urban middle classes’ fascination for the Modi brand and the double burden of corruption charges and anti-incumbency, did it in. It ended up in the third place in both the states.

Having lost power in two more states, the Congress party’s stature as a national party has shrunk further. Of the 18 states which have 10 or more seats in the Lok Sabha, only two, Assam and Karnataka, are now under Congress rule. In a third, Kerala, it heads the ruling coalition. The BJP is in control of seven states and is a part of the ruling coalition in one. The remaining seven states are under as many different parties.

It needs to be noted that all the BJP’s gains are not at the expense of the Congress. The decline of the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and the Indian National Lok Dal in Haryana indicates that it is weaning away people from the regional parties too.

The election results have buttressed the position of Modi and his lieutenant and party president Amit Shah in the BJP. With the battered Congress yet to refloat itself and the non-Congress opposition parties unable to put their act together, the BJP under Modi’s captaincy is well set for a long innings. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, October 21, 2014.

14 October, 2014

Nobel Prize as a message?

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Of the Nobel prizes, the one for peace has been the most controversial. It has always carried with it the irony of rewarding peace efforts with profits from dynamite.

This year’s prize, shared by Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai and Indian child rights activist Kailash Satyarthi, produced rich irony on its own. Some critics asked what contribution did the two make towards peace and understanding.

Malala, 17, is the youngest person to win the prize. She was nominated for the prize along with Pope Francis and US whistleblower Edward Snowden. If there were certain political calculations behind her choice it is neither unusual nor unprecedented.

Kailash Satyarthi, who has been working quietly for rescue and rehabilitation of child workers in India, was not a widely known figure in his own country. There were a few references to him and his work in the Indian media in the recent past but there was no mention that he was a contender for the prize. His choice therefore came as a surprise.

Unesco has noted that since war begins in the minds of men it is in their minds that defence of peace must be constructed. Freeing children from bondage and ensuring that they are educated are, in a real sense, activities amounting to construction of defence of peace. However, educationally advanced countries are also known to start wars. Therefore, the question whether the right kind of education is being imparted is relevant.

There was heavy irony in the announcement of the award even as Indian and Pakistani security personnel were engaged in the fiercest clashes in a decade along the border in Jammu and Kashmir, over which the two countries have fought four times in their 67 years as separate nations.

Thorbjoern Jagland, head of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, said the committee “regards it as an important point for a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, to join in a common struggle for education and against extremism”. Leaders of the two countries made feeble efforts to rise to the occasion.

While congratulating Malala Yousafzai, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said, “She has made her countrymen proud. Her achievement is unparalleled and unequalled.” He did not dwell on the fact that, unable to return home because of extremist threats, she is now living and studying in Britain, where she had gone for medical treatment after the failed murder attempt by Taliban.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Satyarthi had devoted his life to a cause that is extremely relevant to humankind and the entire nation was proud of his momentous achievement. He congratulated Malala too, saying her life is a journey of immense grit and courage.

In the exchange of fire at 15 points along the international border and the Line of Control (LoC), about 30 civilian casualties were reported. Officials of the two sides feigned ignorance about each other’s motive. An Indian newspaper quoted the chief of the Border Security Force as saying, “We have inflicted heavy damage on them, but they keep firing. I do not understand why.” BBC quoted Major General Javed Khan of Pakistan as saying, “I just want to know the reason from the other side. We are not finding the answer.”

Political pundits offered familiar explanations. Pakistani experts related the border incidents to the elections in the states of Maharashtra and Haryana. They pointed out that Modi and his defence minister have been talking of change in times and imposing unaffordable costs. Indian analysts attributed the incidents to the Pakistan army’s effort to reassert its authority vis-à-vis the civilian government.

Since India called off the secretary-level talks in protest against the Pakistan envoy’s confabulation with Kashmiri secessionists, Islamabad has been trying hard to break out of the bilateral framework in which it had been confined by the Shimla Pact. It sees the border incidents as an opportunity to bring back into the picture the UN whose role was extinguished by India after the 1972 war.

There is scope to speculate that Modi and Sharif have a chance to win a Nobel for themselves through a patch-up, as Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho (1973), Anwat Al Sadat and Menachem Begin (1978) and Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres (1994) did. However, they are caught in a high-stake game in which others are also involved. -- Gulf Today, October 14, 2014.

13 October, 2014

Lack of diversity in Indian newsrooms

To what extent does an Indian newsroom reflect the composition of the society which it seeks to serve?

In "India's Newspaper Revolution", Robin Jeffrey wrote that in the 1990s woemn and Dalits were almost absent from the reporting and editing sides of daily newspapers. He quoted a journalist in New Delhi, B.N. Uniyal, as stating in 1999 that "in all the thirty years I had worked as a journalist I had never met a fellow journalist who was a Dalit; no, not one... it had never occurred to me that there was something so seriously amiss in the profession.".

After going trough the names of nearly 700 journalists accredited to the Press Information Bureau in New Delhi, Uniyal was unable to identify a single Dalit."

Fifteen years have passed since then. How different is the situation today? Women's presence in the newspapers appears to have improved, and the electronic media which has come up in the last two decades have offered them greater opportunities than the print.

What about Dalits? Media owners generall plug line that they don't ask for the caste and religion of candidates, and so they have no information about the caste and religious affiliation of their employees.

Writing in a recent issue of Swadesi Janata, a Dalit periodical, K. Viswanathan said there was no accredited journalist belonging to the Schedules Castes of Scheduled Tribes in Thiruvananthapuram, capital of Kerala, a state which boasts of total literacy and a large number of newspapers and news channels.
 
In sharp contrast to the total insensitivity of Indian media institutions and organizations of media persons is the deep commitment with which the American Society of Newspaper Editors has been trying to improve minority representation in US newsrooms.

The number of minority journalists in daily-newspaper newsrooms in the United States increased by a couple of hundred in 2013 even as newsroom employment declined by 3.2 percent, according to the annual census released by ASNE and the Center for Advanced Social Research. 
 
This year's census also found that 63 percent of the news organizations surveyed have at least one woman among their top three editors. The percent of minority leaders is lower, with 15 percent of participating organizations saying at least one of their top three editors is a person of color. This was the first year the questions about women and minorities in leadership were asked.
 
Overall, the survey found, there are about 36,700 full-time daily newspaper journalists at nearly 1,400 newspapers in the country. That's a 1,300-person decrease from 38,000 in 2012. Of those employees, about 4,900, or 13.34 percent, are racial and ethnic minorities. That's up about 200 people, or 1 percentage point, from last year's 4,700 and 12.37 percent. It is nearly as high as the record of 13.73 percent in 2006.
 
"Producing the employment census each year is a significant effort on the part of ASNE, but as the leaders of America's newsrooms, we feel it's essential to keep this data front and center," said ASNE President David Boardman, dean of the School of Media and Communication at Temple University, while releasing the report at Columbia, Missouri on July 29. "We remain committed to doing all we can to help our newsrooms, and our news reports, better reflect the diverse nature of the communities we cover."

ASNE, which believes that diverse newsrooms better cover America’s communities, has been committed to diversity for more than three decades.
 
In 1978, it challenged the newspaper industry to achieve racial parity by 2000 or sooner and released the results of its first annual newsroom employment census. Over three decades, the annual survey has shown that while there has been progress, the racial diversity of newsrooms does not come close to the fast-growing diversity in the US population as a whole.
While ASNE is a voluntary, nonprofit organization with no hiring authority in individual newsrooms, the group is a steadfast leader in calling for newsroom diversity.

In 2000, the ASNE board reaffirmed its diversity goals. The board also approved adding women to its annual census on newsroom employment. Diversity initiatives remain focused on the hiring, promotion and retention of people of color in the newsroom.

The ASNE mission statement says:

To cover communities fully, to carry out their role in a democracy, and to succeed in the marketplace, the nation’s newsrooms must reflect the racial diversity of American society by 2025 or sooner. At a minimum, all newspapers should employ journalists of color and every newspaper should reflect the diversity of its community.

The newsroom must be a place in which all employees contribute their full potential, regardless of race, ethnicity, color, age, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability or other defining characteristic.
 
The ASNE board in 2000 reaffirmed strategies, “which may be expanded or amended periodically”:
  • Conduct an annual census of employment of Asian Americans, blacks, Native Americans, Hispanics, and women in the newsroom.
  • Encourage and assist editors in recruiting, hiring and managing diverse newsrooms.
  • Expand ASNE efforts to foster newsroom diversity.
  • Establish three-year benchmarks for measuring progress.
 Click here for ASNE's 2014 Diversity report. http://asne.org/content.asp?pl=121&sl=15&contentid=387
(A Note posted in Facebook on October 13, 2014).
 

07 October, 2014

Modi's American conquest

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

More than 2,000 years ago, Julius Caesar wrote to the Roman Senate from the city of Zela: veni, vidi, vici, meaning I came, I saw, I conquered. Prime Minister Narendra Modi sought to evoke the same triumphal note when he said at the end of five hectic days in the US that his visit had been a great success.

Modi, who led his Bharatiya Janata Party to a sensational victory in the national elections last May, had met leaders of several countries, including China’s Xi Jinping and Japan’s Shinzo Abe, before going to the US to address the UN General Assembly in New York and hold talks with President Barack Obama. 

He had been to the US previously to spread the Hindutva gospel among the rich and powerful Indian Americans but this visit was special not only because he was now the Prime Minister but also because he had been denied entry into the US since 2005 on account of the communal riots which occurred in Gujarat while he was the Chief Minister.

The highlight of the visit was a spectacular rally in New York’s Madison Square Garden which demonstrated yet again the event management skills he and his team had displayed during the parliamentary elections. The Indian community, a sizable section of which has found in the Hindutva ideology a psychological ballast, turned out in large numbers to greet Modi. Outside the rally venue, another section of the community staged a protest against the 2002 riots.

Officials of the two countries worked hard to project the Modi visit as a landmark in Indo-US relations. Ahead of his arrival, they produced a newspaper article which the Washington Post published on its Op-Ed page under a joint Modi-Obama byline. This was followed by a vision statement in which the two countries committed to expand and deepen their strategic partnership and march forward shoulder to shoulder. After the leaders’ meeting came a long joint statement. No one can wade through these documents without being impressed by the uncanny ability of officials of the world’s largest democracies to say so little in so many words.

The 3,490-word joint statement opened with the leaders’ extolling of the broad strategic and global partnership between the US and India which, it said, would continue to generate greater prosperity and security for their citizens and the world. For the most part, it reiterated past commitments. It also mentioned reinvigoration or extension of some existing programmes.

The term ‘strategic partnership,’ which recurs in all the documents, is comparatively new to the Indian public since the country had avoided such relationships in the heyday of Non-Alignment. India started entering into such relationships only after the turn of the century. It now has about 30 strategic partners, including the US, Russia, China and Japan. China has about 50 of them, including the US and Russia. The US has still more.

Beginning with Jawaharlal Nehru most Indian prime ministers undertook pilgrimages to the US but the platitudes over shared democratic values did not translate into technology transfers which India was looking for. As the US failed to respond India turned to the former Soviet Union and to Europe for assistance to set up steel mills and the Indian Institutes of Technology.

Obama’s endorsement of India’s claim for membership of the missile control and nuclear regimes and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s offer to work with the Indian Space Research Organisation are a result not of love for Modi’s India but of grudging appreciation of the progress the country has achieved without US help. What concrete steps will follow remains to be seen.

Modi made no commitment on the Indian nuclear liability law which US equipment suppliers dread but Obama got him to accept a reference to the South China Sea while mentioning threats to freedom of navigation. Obama agreed with Modi on the need for joint and concerted efforts to dismantle the safe havens of terrorist groups.

The Wall Street Journal said the Modi show was “long on pageantry and short on substance”. But the national media went the whole hog on the veni, vedi, vici theme, enabling Modi to claim on Sunday in a campaign speech in Maharashtra, where Assembly elections are due, that the world was now listening to India. His conquest, however, was limited to the pro-Hindutva NRIs. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, October 7, 2014.

30 September, 2014

Climate change warnings

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

India’s Narendra Modi, China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin were conspicuously absent when about 120 world leaders gathered for the climate summit in New York last week at the invitation of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon. All three stayed away as they saw it as an attempt to push the rich countries’ climate agenda.

About 150 countries were represented at the first climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009, which raised hopes of global action to reduce carbon emissions which are pushing up temperatures. Many have still not signed the agreement reached there and the promises made have been broken. The New York meet was called to secure new concessions from the less developed nations ahead of the 2015 meet in Paris where a legal instrument may come up for approval.

Without mixing words, Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar said recently that although India is taking steps to reduce carbon dioxide emissions they will continue to rise for at least 30 years. It is for the more developed countries to make immediate cuts, he added.

The view he articulated is predicated on the fact that India figures low in the list of industrial polluters and has before it the onerous task of speeding up development to raise millions of people above the poverty level.

A chart prepared by the Global Carbon Project (GCP), a collaborative effort of NGOs devoted to environmental research, shows that India’s per-person emission is only one-tenth that of the US and one-fourth that of China. Incidentally, China’s emission level has risen above Europe’s.

While the developed and the developing quarrel over the issue, emission is continuing at speeds, which should worry both. The GCP has estimated that the world pumped 39.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air last year by burning coal, oil and gas. This was 778 million tons or 2.3 per cent more than the previous year. If emission continues to grow at this rate the quota of carbon dioxide that can be released without pushing global warming beyond two degrees C will be exhausted within 30 years.

India has taken up plans to double generation of wind and solar energy within a decade. This will help reduce dependence on coal and hold down the emission level. However, it has also on hand plans which will raise emission levels. The Make in India programme which Modi is pushing hard is one such.

Carbon dioxide emissions and related issues of air pollution are a part of the severe environmental problems which India faces. The consequences of large-scale destruction of forests and pollution of water sources pose a big threat too.

In its last years, the Manmohan Singh regime initiated several measures to attract investments and opened up forest areas to mining interests. Some of the projects it approved had to be abandoned later in view of strong opposition from local communities whose traditional modes of livelihood were threatened. The Modi regime is in the process of diluting forest and environmental laws to quicken the pace of development. This is sure to speed up environmental degradation too.

In recent years, some states have been reeling under the impact of severe drought, while some others have been experiencing devastating floods. They are warning signals the country can ignore only at its peril.

Last year, in the sub-Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, swollen mountain streams rushed down the slopes, sweeping away all that they encountered. The government put the toll at around 6,000 dead but non-governmental agencies said as many as 30,000 might have died.

Circle of Blue, a US-based NGO set up by journalists and scientists, attributed the disaster to the massive construction activity in the Himalayan region in pursuance of a Central government decision of 2003 to build 162 big hydro-electric projects by 2025 to generate 50,000 megawatt of power. Thirty-three of the projects are in Uttarakhand.

This month, large tracts in the Kashmir valley, including the city of Srinagar, experienced the worst floods in more than six decades. Early reports said about 280 people died and millions were rendered homeless. Environmental activist Sunita Narain said mismanagement of resources and poor planning were among the causes of severe drought and floods.

The earth can be saved only if each country is ready to save itself. Even as the Indian government fights at the global level for equity on developmental issues it must take steps to check the environmental degradation taking place all across the country from north to south and east to west.

23 September, 2014

False steps in India-China tango

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Was it a coincidence that Indian and Chinese troops were involved in a standoff on the heights of Ladakh when President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi were talking?

The appearance of discordant notes, when governmental leaders hold crucial meetings, are not unusual. They are often the result of calculated moves by state or non-state actors to create hurdles.    

According to Indian media reports, the confrontation on the disputed border began when Chinese troops moved forward at three places in Chumar in eastern Ladakh on September 10 just as Xi left on a nine-day tour of Tajikistan, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and India. They attributed it to renewed Chinese efforts to establish a presence in Chumar, which had been foiled earlier.

Chinese reports insinuated that the tension was engineered by India. They accused India of instigating border incidents as it wanted the talks, which are focused on trade and economic cooperation, to cover the border issue also. They recalled that there was a three-week standoff in the western part of the border ahead of Prime Minister Li Keqiang’s visit to India last year.

In the Chumar area, China is laying a track and India is constructing a canal. Each side considers the other’s activity prejudicial to its interests.

Indian media reported that Modi drew Xi’s attention to the border developments at their New Delhi meeting. Xi told him he was sad that they had cast a shadow on his visit and that he had passed on a message to the Chinese army to disengage. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said later that the situation had been “controlled and managed” through immediate and effective communication.

Before leaving India, Xi said the border dispute with India would be resolved early to promote peace and cooperation between the two countries. China had the determination to work with India and settle the boundary question through friendly consultation at an early date, he added.

However, after the Xi visit ended, Chinese soldiers entered the Chumar area again, although in smaller numbers than before.

Apart from being the President, Xi is the General Secretary of the Communist Party and Chairman of the Military Control Commission. That his message for disengagement did not evoke a full response suggests that other players are also active.

The dispute over the 3,380-kilometre long India-China border had precipitated a brief war in 1962. Chinese troops poured down through the Himalayan passes, causing Indian soldiers to scatter in disarray. The Chinese then made a quick, unilateral withdrawal.

The Line of Actual Control, which resulted from the conflict remains undefined. Since 1996, the two sides have been holding talks to resolve the border dispute but all that has come out of the exercise so far is an agreement to maintain peace along the LAC.  

Xi’s commitment to early resolution of the dispute represents a big advance. After his meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during the BRICS summit at Durban last year, he had said the boundary question was a complex issue left over by history and since solving it won’t be easy the two countries should focus on boosting relations without being held back by it.

Significantly, Global Times, the English-language sister daily of the party organ, the People’s Daily, which published Xi’s statement that China was determined to work with India to settle the boundary issue at an early date, also carried a statement by an unnamed Chinese expert on South Asia that there wasn’t much chance of a settlement under the regimes of Xi and Modi.

Despite the border distractions, the Xi-Modi talks yielded some positive results. The two countries signed a dozen agreements providing for cooperation in a wide range of fields from manufacture of power equipment and automotive parts to joint  audiovisual production.

However, there was disappointment in India that China only committed itself to an investment of $20 billion in the next five years, as against a figure of $100 billion mentioned by one of its diplomats a few days earlier.

In a public speech in New Delhi, Xi reiterated his views on the importance of strategic coordination between India and China, which have a combined population of over 2.5 billion. “If we speak with one voice, the whole world will listen, and if we join hands the whole world will pay attention,” he said.

It takes two to tango. Clearly there is still a long way to go before India and China can move in step. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, September 23, 2014.

16 September, 2014

Battle over liquor

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

India’s Constitution-makers had directed the state to work towards prohibition of consumption of alcohol. They did so not on moral or religious grounds, but on the mundane considerations of improving living standards and public health.

Accordingly, many state governments decided to introduce prohibition in stages. By 1964, one-fourth of the country’s population was in areas where liquor was banned. At that stage, most of them started rolling back prohibition rejecting the Central government’s offer of grants to cover half of the loss of revenue resulting from the ban on liquor.

Only Gujarat in the west, Manipur and Nagaland in the tribal northeast and Lakshadweep, a group of Arabian Sea islands, continued with prohibition. Last month Kerala, which boasts of social indices comparable to those of the West, decided to change course and resume the journey towards total prohibition. 

Tipplers in India had relied entirely on locally tapped or brewed drinks until the British introduced foreign liquor in 1837. The high cost of imported liquor limited its use to the affluent. Bengali nationalist leader Keshub Chandra Sen opposed liquor imports but the British were unwilling to give up the fast growing Indian market.

Later on, Gandhi campaigned against all kinds of liquor. The constitutional directive on prohibition was a result of his work.

When Gandhi came on the scene, prohibition was an idea which had wide appeal across the world. It was in force in the USA, Canada, the Soviet Union (where it was introduced in the Czar’s time) and a few European countries like Norway and Iceland. All of them soon abandoned it, declaring it was unworkable.

Today prohibition prevails only in a dozen Muslim states, including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Bangladesh.  In Pakistan, non-Muslims can obtain permits to buy liquor.

Half of Kerala was dry when a coalition government headed by Communist Party of India-Marxist leader EMS Namboodiripad wound up prohibition to augment the state’s finances. Three types of liquor were available in the state: toddy tapped from coconut palms, locally distilled arrack and what is officially labelled Indian made foreign liquor (IMFL).

Kerala was a poor state at that time, with its per capita income below the national average. Today, it is the country’s richest state, thanks mainly to remittances from the large expatriate population in the Gulf States. Consumption of liquor grew steadily as the state prospered. It now accounts for the heaviest consumption of alcohol, estimated at 8.3 litres per head per year, as against the national average of about 4 litres. 

The state’s stake in the liquor trade rose when it set up the Beverages Corporation in 1984 and granted it monopoly over sale of IMFL. The 1997 ban on sale of arrack boosted IMFL sales. The corporation now contributes more than Rs72 billion a year to the exchequer, which is about a quarter of the state’s total revenue.

The government took the decision to push ahead with prohibition in circumstances that raise doubts about its sincerity.  A court had ordered closure of more than 300 hotel bars working in insanitary conditions. Chief Minister Oommen Chandy was inclined to find a way to reopen them but state Congress president VM Sudheeran opposed the move. As Sudheeran’s stand proved popular, the government upstaged him by announcing the new policy.

In terms of the government decision, all bars except those in five-star hotels were to close down last week. But the Supreme Court, acting on a bunch of petitions filed by bar owners, asked the government not to enforce the decision until the end of this month, by which time the High Court will rule on the issues raised by the petitioners.

The bar owners have claimed that their licences allow them to function until the current financial year ends on March 31, 2015. This is true but, then, they were given the licences on the specific understanding that the government has the right to cancel them at any time.

The High Court verdict may not be the last word on the subject since the losing side is certain to go in appeal to the Supreme Court, leading to further delay.

Contrary to the popular impression, the new policy will not result in total prohibition. Wine and beer parlours will continue to exit, and their numbers may well increase.

Many believe that the legal ban on liquor will fail, as happened in the US. However, in the conditions prevailing in Kerala  there is a need to limit availability of liquor, if only to prevent children from taking to drinking. The law stipulates that one must be at least 21 years old to drink but studies have indicated that many start drinking in their early teens.

If Kerala wins the battle against liquor, other states may come under pressure to rethink on prohibition. In neighbouring Tamil Nadu, a political party, the Pattali Makkal Katchi, has already demanded that the state follow the Kerala example. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, September 16, 2014.