The state plans to go completely dry over the next 10 years. Alcoholics are unhappy, but their families are elated with the decision which the now ruling Left may not undo
A drop of liquor is equivalent to a thousand teardrops (Oru tulli madyam, ayiram tulli kannuneer), says an advertisement of the excise department of Kerala.
Vishu smells of liquor as he gets up and receives this journalist into his two-room house in Ambalapuram, a typical urbanised panchayat in Thrissur.
It is 7 pm and the 60-year-old man, a carpenter by profession and caste, is relaxing, watching a Malayalam TV drama with his wife.
Will Kerala be liquor-free in 10 years? That was the promise made by the Congress-led UDF government in the state and which the Left opposition had reluctantly seconded all through the past five years and now since coming to power has been promising to revise.
Per capita liquor consumption
Kerala: 11.1 litres
India: 4.3 litres
Belarus (The world’s highest): 17 litres
For Vishu, a loyal cadre of the Marxist party, this is a question best not answered. He gets annoyed and says he does not care what the government does.
The former UDF government denied liquor licences to some 804 bars last year, marking the first stage of implementation of its ambitious liquor prohibition policy called Subodham. Kerala State Beverages Corporation, which monopolises sale of liquor in the state, is still selling liquor through its outlets across the state.
In the next 10 years, sale of liquor is to be phased out totally as per the erstwhile Congress government’s liquor policy. So 10 percent of the liquor vends would shut down each year.
“We will see when it happens. But I feel that for the labourers coming home after a hard day’s work, a peg or two does no harm. I keep a bottle at home and it lasts me a whole week. I don’t go and sleep on the bottle just because it is there. I have just a bit” – he indicates with his fingers – “and head for dinner and then have a good sleep,” says Vishu.
Kerala liquor control: Timeline
||Licences to run bars restricted to hotels with at least a minimum of two-star and above
||Locally brewed arrack banned
||418 bars without even two-star classification legalised
||Disallows new bars even if they are three- or four-star near existing ones
||UDF bars vs bars
||Four-star hotel owners go to court to challenge government order saying that they should be allowed as illegal bars were legalised
||SC upholds govt policy to shut bars except in five-star hotels
“Is that too much to ask for?” he says, elevating it to something of a labour issue.
His question seems to resonate in the ambivalence seen in the LDF quarters over the Congress liquor policy even before the elections. While former communist chief minister VS Achuthanandan had said that he is for total prohibition, echoing CPM leader Sitaram Yechury’s stance, the rest of the party had maintained a studied silence. Now with his bête noire in the party, Pinarayi Vijayan, as chief minister, the prohibition policy may go through a few twists and turns.
However, insiders say that it is unlikely that the Left would undo what the previous government has done. Though the liquor policy was blamed by some for the debacle Congress faced in the elections, most are not buying that theory.
Says Johnson Edayaranmula, founder of the Alcohol and Drug Information Centre (ADIC) India, an NGO, and also advisor to the Kerala government on its alcohol policy: “Everyone knows that polarisation led to the fall of the Congress. In fact, the Congress can thank its liquor policy for whatever votes it did get.
“So far the new government has not touched the policy. It may at the most change the name. We shall know it in the first assembly session which starts on the World Drug Abuse Day [June 26],” adds Johnson.
In any case, the liquor policy is not about total prohibition as has been bandied about. It is phasing out liquor sale over a period of 10 years. So there is little that the new government can do in it, he says, adding that the first 10 percent of liquor vends did get shut down in April before the new government was sworn in and now there is unlikely to be any turning back.
Socio-economic costs of liquor consumption
Crimes related to alcohol 59 percent
Road accidents 40 percent
Divorces/domestic violence linked to alcohol use 80 percent
Hospitalisations 20 percent
Source: Alcohol Atlas of Kerala by ADIC India
The only change that has been made so far is an announcement by the government that it would rope in Sachin Tendulkar to spread awareness about the ills of alcohol, a brave step for a state which earns a large chunk of its revenue from selling liquor.
The last time a government had tried to curb liquor consumption was under another UDF government of chief minister AK Antony in 1996 when he banned arrack which is locally brewed. The LDF government, which came after that, continued the policy, but introduced Indian Made Foreign Liquor or IMFL.
The LDF always continues any policy adopted by the UDF government, says A Ramesh, a political analyst in Thrissur. “They will definitely continue the liquor policy though they kept quiet during elections. Their strategy is to get votes from those who oppose prohibition as well as those who support it,” he says.
But for the worshippers of Bacchus, no one can win a battle against the spirit.
“Where is Antony now?” asks Vishwananthan, or Vishu, as if he was the unofficial spokesperson for all those who oppose prohibition.
“Is he anywhere in Kerala politics now?” he asks and goes on to recall how in those days, back in 1996, he used to earn Rs 80 a day and a quarter of liquor cost Rs 10. “I educated my three children and what more can one do? Those who want to drink will drink,” he says. “Antony stopped charayam but it kept coming. I used to get it in small plastic packets from neighbouring states or illegally made,” he says referring to the locally brewed alcoholic drink.
Whatever critics may say, Vishu’s wife and son and many other families fully support the government policy. And what is more, the policy has meant a 22.11 percent fall in liquor consumption in Kerala in this past one year.
Says Edayaranmula: “This is unprecedented and one has to acknowledge it.”
It is not as if liquor is not available any more. It is just that the government stopped giving any more licences to bars in three- and four-star hotels to serve liquor. Instead, they are being given licences to serve beer and wine.
“It means that homes are turning into bars and youth and women are being drawn to liquor in the guise of beer and wine,” complains Father James Antony, secretary of Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council (KCBC).
The consumption of beer and wine has gone up dramatically thanks to exclusive beer parlours, which are likely to have more social acceptance than the bars which serve liquor. As per the government policy, even these would go in the next 10 years, say supporters of prohibition. “That is what we hope,” says Father Antony.
Heading the campaign to stop liquor sale in Kerala is the KCBC. It is supported by many other groups including Hindu groups like the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana (SNDP), Art of Living, and many Muslim organisations.
Father Antony says that the Congress manifesto in 2011 had promised to stop sale of liquor in the state in phases over 10 years. It was in that context that it refused licences to new three- and four-star bars close to existing bars. These hotels went to the supreme court saying that about 418 illegal bars had been regularised by the previous government and it was unfair to disallow four-star bars.
So it was a fight between two groups of bars and as the court supported the government decision, licences were denied to all three- and four-star bars. These were, however, allowed to serve beer and wine while five-star hotel bars still serve liquor.
The Congress liquor policy has full support from mainly housewives and youth who feel that it would go a long way in rescuing families from disintegrating.
Says Sindhu, a school teacher in a private school in Thrissur: “I am all for the ban on bars which serve liquor. I feel it should stop completely. It will save so many families.
“I have a cousin who has to carry the entire financial burden of the family besides having to bear an abusive and drunk husband all alone, just because liquor is so easily available,” she says.
Analysis of 24 months’ liquor sales (from April 1, 2014 to March 31, 2016)
(Licensing of around 730 beer-wine outlets led to this alarming increase) Source: ADIC India and Excise Department
- IMFL sales dropped by 5,43,32,897 litres (-22.11%)
- Beer sales increased by 2,87,77,377 litres
- Wine sales increased by 16,53,480 litres
Analysis of 24 months’ liquor sales (from April 1, 2014 to March 31, 2016)
- 2013-14: No new licence to bar restaurants except in 4 & 5-star hotels
- 2014-15: Policy shift, 418 bars closed
- 2015-16: New policy, all bars (except in 5-star hotels) closed
- 10% outlets that sell liquor being closed each year
- 730 new beer and wine licences issued in place of cancelled bar licences
“Few realise that alcohol dependence is a disease and for those who are alcoholic, liquor is poison,” says Father Antony.
The government should make rehabilitation and de-addiction help available so that women can cope with alcoholic husbands, he says, adding that the church runs 30 such centres but more are needed.
While there are over 80,000 alcoholics in the state, there are just 15,000 beds for de-addiction, he says citing government data.
“We have so many liquor vends in each panchayat. But do we have a de-addiction centre in every 10th panchayat at least?’’ he asks, adding that the policy is actually encouraging new drinkers by promoting wine and beer.
The impatience of church groups like KCBC to wipe out liquor from the state comes from the fact that liquor abuse has been tearing families apart and affecting social well being. Cases of depression and crime induced by alcoholism are all over newspapers, the latest being that of an alcoholic father who in a fit of manic fury killed his 10-year-old son.
Johnson says that the losses made by the state due to alcohol far exceed the gains in revenue from alcohol. If it earned a revenue of Rs 8,000 crore, it has lost about Rs 10,000 crore due to disease, crime and loss of work days.
According to the Alcohol Atlas brought out by ADIC India, the total number of alcohol users in the state is 4,093,689 which is 18.85 percent of the adult population and 12.25 percent of the total population in Kerala. Out of this, one in six adult males and one in 30 adult females are daily users (‘dependents’) and their number is around 83,850, not counting the under-age dependents. But the total beds annually available for de-addiction in Kerala in all sectors is less than 15,000.
The Congress’s anti-liquor policy has so far found support from the BJP which also promised total prohibition in its election manifesto while the Left had maintained a discreet silence.
Not only has there been a 22.11 percent fall in liquor consumption since 2015, there has also been a fall in revenue earned by the excise department from liquor.
The figures are a bit deceptive. The earnings were Rs 6,564 crore in 2014 and they rose to Rs 8,122 crore in 2015-16. This rise reflects the 20 percent increase in liquor prices and a 10 percent cess slapped on liquor in this period, says Antony. So if that 30 percent price increase is deducted then it shows a fall in revenue to the extent of about Rs 600 crore, he says.
The Kerala government was lauded by the World Health Organisation which cited it as a global role model, and at least three states – Bihar, Delhi and Tamil Nadu – have been inspired to adopt strong liquor policies.
While the coming together of organisations representing all religions to support the policy had an advantage, the united stand of the Congress and its allies also helped. State Congress president VM Sudheeran, considered to be an upright and responsible leader, is credited with pushing the policy against all odds.
Sudheeran himself was being blamed by opposing lobbies in his party for the losses suffered by the party in the elections. However, as Johnson says: “It is a lie propagated by the media for sensation.”
Father Antony has been busy organising 10-day camps in village after village under the government’s Grama Deepam project to end alcohol dependence. “We select 1,000 to 2,000 families and talk to them. We have leaders from Sri Narayana Adarsha Samiti representing the Ezhava community, people from Art of Living and also some Muslim organisations.”
He whole-heartedly praises Sudheeran. “He played a key role. The unity of so many groups also worked. Besides the families, women and children irrespective of communities are with the policy. It can’t go wrong,” says Father Antony, as if declaring the liquor policy a success. n
Menon is a freelance journalist.
(The article appears in June 16-30, 2016 edition of Governance Now)