New on my other blogs

KERALA LETTER
A Dalit poet writing in English, based in Kerala
Foreword to Media Tides on Kerala Coast
Teacher seeks V.S. Achuthanandan's intervention to end harassment by partymen
Change of heart? Or stooping to conquer?
Some thoughts on the historic Battle of Colachel

വായന

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.    

No comments: