The grand announcement to shut 500 liquor shops is the first baby step to gradually enforce prohibition in Tamil Nadu, a state that has been high on alcohol for years
Shivani Chaturvedi | June 20, 2016 | Chennai
It is half past noon. Dozens of eager men are at one of the Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation (TASMAC)-run liquor shops in Mullimanagar, a fishing hamlet along the Marina beach in Chennai. The shutter of the shop opened just half-an-hour back and will close at 10 pm. These are the new curtailed timings.
“I really want total prohibition. Since the options are available in front of me, I drink. When all the shops are closed, I won’t have an option,” says Karthik, 30, a resident of the slum at the fishing hamlet.
Karthik, who earns his livelihood by ironing clothes, says that as the liquor sale time is reduced by two hours, he is forced to buy illicit liquor and that too at double the price.
But now, he gleefully shows the four bottles that he just bought from the liquor outlet – two peeping from his trouser pockets and two in his hands. “I buy illicit liquor at 4.30 in morning,” he adds.
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J Jayalalithaa began her second consecutive term as the chief minister of Tamil Nadu by announcing closure of 500 TASMAC liquor shops. The CM also ordered liquor outlets to be open only from noon to 10 pm. Earlier, the shops remained open from 10 am to 10 pm.
At the launch of her election campaign on April 9, she had told a huge crowd at the Island Grounds in Chennai: “Prohibition will be enforced in a phased manner, which will eventually lead to complete prohibition.”
The announcement could not have come any sooner for Panjacharam, another resident of this slum, who has been drinking regularly for the past 20 years. He admits that he wants to quit drinking and lead a peaceful life. “Once the shops are closed there won’t be any possibility to drink,” he says.
Ramesh, who has been drinking since his teenage, says, “Reducing two hours of liquor sale is not effective. Now people are paying more to buy liquor. In this slum itself, there are six places where illicit liquor is sold all through the day. What one gets at Rs 80 at TASMAC-run shops, one is forced to spend Rs 150 for illicit liquor.”
Senthamaria, who too stays in the same hamlet, suggests that instead of reducing the time of liquor sale in the morning, the government should have brought it down by two hours at night. “In the morning, my husband takes anti-alcohol pills. After 9 at night when he returns from work, the liquor shop is open and he cannot resist it. Instead of closing at 10 pm, the government should have given orders to close the outlets by 8 pm,” she says.
F Agnes, a 48-year-old resident of this slum, contested the recent assembly election from RK Nagar, Jayalalithaa’s constituency. Agnes secured 3,000 votes and the only issue which she highlighted was liquor prohibition.
“Contesting the assembly election was my expression of anger against Jayalalithaa. She herself owns Midas Golden Distilleries Private Limited. Liquor has eaten away my entire family. I became a widow at the age of 30. All my three sisters became widows in their twenties. The cause was liquor,” she says, with pain which is palpable in her voice. Agnes and members of her self-help group Sea Trust have been working towards liquor prohibition in all slum areas of the city.
Agnes is living in this hamlet since 1968. She recalls that in 1974 toddy and local brews like sunda kanji – made from fermenting rice that is buried in earthen or mud pots covered with cloth – were available. When the government started selling liquor, which had higher alcohol content the drunk men began to go out of control.
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At the same time, Agnes feels that prohibition in phases is a good move. “At least in mornings the area near TASMAC shops remains peaceful. Children go to school and men and women go for work without any disturbance. Earlier, there used to be a lot of problems because people used to throng liquor shops in the morning,” she says.
TASMAC, which has a monopoly over liquor distribution in the state, has witnessed a steady increase in its sales revenue since 2003. According to Satta Panchayat Iyakkam (SPI), an organisation campaigning for prohibition, 31 percent of the state’s total revenue comes from TASMAC. According to the latest data provided by SPI for 2015-16, tax revenue from liquor sales is estimated at over Rs 29,672 crore. This is a huge chunk of the state’s own total tax revenue of Rs 96,083 crore.
The authorities are, however, unclear about how the prohibition would be implemented. Minister for electricity, prohibition and excise P Thangamani told Governance Now: “I can’t say anything on this. She [Amma] has the authority to speak.”
A senior officer from the state’s prohibition and excise department, not wishing to be named, says as the government talks about implementing prohibition in a phased manner, time of liquor sale was reduced by two hours in the first phase. In the second phase, 500 shops will be closed. “Lists of liquor shops are being received by respective district collectors. First, we would shut down shops in areas where people are demanding closure – such as near temples, residential areas, and schools,” he says. There are a total of 6,705 TASMAC liquor shops in the state.
In the third phase, TASMAC-run bars will down the shutters. There are as many as 3,200 bars across the state.
The fourth phase will focus on rehabilitation and recovery of alcoholics. “We would see whether more counselling centres, hospitals or de-addiction centres are needed,” says the officer. However, no time frame was stated.
TASMAC employs about 25,000 people to run its liquor shops and bars. On the plan to rehabilitate people rendered jobless because of the closure of liquor shops and bars, he says, “As initially 500 liquor shops will be closed, those employees can be accommodated here and there. If we close more shops, we would give them fresh jobs.”
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Duraimurugan, supervisor at one of the TASMAC outlets, argues that the prohibition violates human rights and food rights. “If the government really wants to solve the problem, it should create effective awareness and monitor liquor trade,” he says adding, “We would oppose closure of shops.”
The prohibition debate is not new to the state. In 1971, DMK leader M Karunanidhi had lifted the ban on prohibition, only to reintroduce it three years later. Till 1991, prohibition was enforced and lifted many times. Later, the state banned arrack and country-made liquor. Given this chequered history, people are sceptical of the new government’s intention of making prohibition a success. They feel it’s a mere eyewash.
R Srinivasan, who teaches at the department of econometrics at Madras University, says, “Politics here is divided between total prohibition and no prohibition. As of now the government does not seem prepared to bring in prohibition. The government till now has not come out with a detailed plan such as the number of de-addiction centres that would come up. The state has not dealt with the issue in a scientific way. De-addiction should have been a part of a larger public health policy.
“Similarly, instead of closing liquor shops they should have found out the ways to monitor liquor trade. It seems the state is not serious about bringing in prohibition.”
The state has no policy of regulation. The Madras high court has given many judgments on removal of shops in the vicinity of temples, schools and similar places. That means the state is violating its own policy. This history makes people cynical about the plans of gradual withdrawal of liquor sale.
As far as economic implications are concerned, since 2000 the revenue from liquor sale has increased so much that the government has increased its expenses. So, leaders would find it difficult to cope with dwindling revenues.
Kerala and Bihar, two other states on the prohibition bandwagon, earn much less liquor revenue in comparison to Tamil Nadu.
Jayaram Venkatesan of Arappor Iyakkam, a city-based NGO, says, “In a survey, done by a team of researchers led by Ajay Kumar Tannirkulam and me, we found that almost 80 lakh people [data extrapolated from survey] in the state are addicted to liquor, which means a third of 2.3 crore men are addicts. Pulling them out of this is a big challenge.” The researchers had carried out the survey last year in five districts of Cuddalore, Trichy, Kanchipuram, Dindigul and Chennai to understand socio-economic problems arising from liquor consumption.
Venkatesan says that the Bihar government had planned to open de-addiction centres six months in advance before enforcing prohibition. However the Tamil Nadu government has not come up with any such blueprint. “We have asked the government for a blueprint on how and when they are going to phase liquor out, but we have not got any satisfactory reply,” he adds.
“In other states local mafia is involved in liquor sale, whereas in Tamil Nadu the liquor lobby is directly connected to the two major political parties. So the political will is missing. It only remains a vote-winning promise,” he says, adding, “Today we do not have a roadmap to look at the issue holistically. This is only a political drama.”
Venkatesan, in a report compiled and released before assembly elections, states that liquor has become a major socio-political and economic problem in Tamil Nadu. The state has gone beyond all possible ways to promote alcohol. The increase in revenues of TASMAC from Rs 3,639 crore to Rs 21,680 crore within a period of nine years signifies the rate of increase of alcohol addiction. This has become the most pressing problem for women in the state. They are bearing the maximum brunt, with increased domestic violence, besides spending huge sums of money on healthcare for drunkard husbands. They have become the only breadwinner in many families.
Subathra Devi, an anti-liquor campaigner working with Friends for Alcohol Awareness in Chennai, says the state has all the resources needed to bring in prohibition, including volunteers. “Political will is missing to make it happen,” she adds. Subathra visited Bihar to study consumption of neera (also called sweet toddy) and she thinks the state can learn lessons from Bihar’s prohibition model. “Bihar has used self-help groups to inform the authorities about illicit liquor. There, punishment for selling illicit liquor is heavy. The government is taking initiatives like reaching out to people in villages through awareness songs,” she says.
As Jayalalithaa moves to implementing her election manifesto, political experts too speak of the challenges she may face. Political analyst and medical practitioner Dr Sumanth Raman says, “How is she going to make up the revenue loss? Liquor sales bring in almost Rs 30,000 crore to the state.”
Political commentator BR Haran concurs. “At the end of the previous tenure, the government had a liability of Rs 4 lakh crore. The state needs revenue. Without having a strong alternative as the source of revenue, she might face a challenge,” he says.
Professor S Janakarajan, an economist at Madras Institute of Development Studies, says, “It is going to take a couple of years to bring prohibition in the state. She [Jayalalithaa] needs to do a lot of ground work to bring in prohibition as there might be hooch tragedies. In this state, people have been drinking since 1967.
“Also, the state’s loss of revenue has to be looked into when prohibition is introduced. Jayalalithaa needs to take a bold decision to levy some new taxes, to start with tax on diesel car vehicles,” he adds.
(The story appears in the June 16-30, 2016 issue)
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