Kerala Liquor Ban: Finding a New High

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The state’s policy to ban liquor has not only tainted the ruling UDF with bribery charges but has also led to increasing number of youngsters taking to drugs
By Naveen Nair in Thiruvananthapuram


“Most of the evil in this world is done by people with good intentions’’
—TS Elliot, poet

This holds true even today in one of the unlikeliest places—God’s Own Country. By adopting a phased liquor prohibition policy, the Kerala government might have thought it was putting its best foot forward to totally eradicate it in the state. But if figures of the state’s Crime Records Bureau are anything to go by, it has opened a Pandora’s Box, as instead of drunkards, dopers are ruling the roost now.

In 2014, the year the crackdown took effect, drug abuse cases in Kerala swelled by over 100 percent. The records for 2015 were even scarier—4,105 drug abuse cases, four times more than in 2013.

INTOXICATED YOUNGSTERS

Manoj Abraham, the Inspector-General of Police and the nodal officer for the “Clean Campus, Safe Campus” campaign, the Home Department’s initiative to make colleges in Kerala drugs-free, affirms that the reduced availability of liquor is driving youngsters to other forms of intoxication.

“There may be a number of reasons, but the lesser availability of liquor is one of the major factors for youngsters moving to drugs. Over the past two years, we see a clear pattern of the old drug menace of the eighties returning and it’s going to be a tough fight for the enforcement agencies,’’ said Abraham.

What is alarming is that police records show that more than 70 percent of the narcotic cases involve teenagers between 15 to 25 years. Some act as carriers, while the majority is non-first-time users, which makes it a more dangerous evil to root out.

The police have reasons to believe that students of higher secondary schools and colleges are easy targets. The modus operandi of drug cartels also revolves round these institutions. A number of networks busted recently point to this pattern. “There is no way we can have a tab on the demand because that is driven by factors beyond our control. So we are now engaged in breaking the supply chain which will be crucial in tackling this menace,’’ added Abraham.

POLITICAL OVERTONES

This issue has political overtones. If there was one person who arm-twisted the Oommen Chandy government to set in motion what was perceived as an impractical alcohol policy, it is state Congress president VM Sudheeran. Parachuted to this post by the Congress high command as a consensus candidate to fight the infighting in the state unit, Sudheeran wanted a cause to further his political fortunes. The opportunity came in the form of a crucial decision the state government took in the renewal of licenses for 418 bars in 2013. The government had initially denied renewal citing unhygienic conditions in the bars. While Chandy had a carrot-and-stick approach to this issue, Sudheeran had other ideas. For a man who always had a diminished image in the party, this was an opportunity to score brownie points against the CM.

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Taking the moral high ground, lone-ranger Sudheeran went to the media saying that “external forces” were derailing the government’s liquor policy. This put immense pressure on Chandy and the cabinet had no other choice but to declare a policy that would aim at eradicating alcohol by 2023. This was a watershed moment in a state which has the highest per capita consumption of liquor at 8.3 liters while the average in India is as low as 4.3 liters a year!

Sudheeran had won this round of political one-upmanship. But Chandy ensured he did not lose the final battle even if it was at the cost of hurting the powerful liquor lobby which had invested crores not just in their business but even in the political circles.


SC backs Kerala liquor ban

The Supreme Court has dismissed a clutch of petitions filed by hotels and their associations seeking review of its verdict approving Kerala’s new liquor policy. It prohibits drinking in public and restricts serving of alcohol to five-star hotels. The petitioners include the Kerala Bar Hotels Association and others. A bench of justices JS Khehar and Shiva Kirti Singh dismissed their review petition.

“We do not find any error apparent on the face of the record of this case, warranting reconsideration of the aforementioned judgment. The review petition is without any merit and the same is, accordingly, dismissed,” the order issued by the bench stated.


SOCIETY SUFFERS

For a society that had suffered immensely from the ill-effects of alcohol, this was just what the doctor had ordered. And though the liquor industry had been the state’s milch cow and sustained the government treasury for years, this won’t hold much water when one considers what successive generations of Keralites had gone through as alcohol flowed unabated in the state.

The high rate of divorce and suicide in a nearly 100 percent literate state are some of the biggest fallouts of this menace. According to the Central Alcohol and Drug Information Centre, 69 percent of crimes, 40 percent of road accidents and 80 percent of domestic violence cases in Kerala are linked to alcohol. No wonder this was one decision the womenfolk of the state was ready to receive with open arms.

Though Chandy was aware that it was a landmark decision he had taken, the UDF failed to reap any dividends from it as far as the common man was concerned. Instead, the bar policy was tainted with stories of bribery and deceit which the liquor lobby put out.

Political analyst C Gowridasan said: “Although the government has taken a big decision, it has not been able to stake claim to it. The mainstream in the ruling alliance is opposed to it as is evident by the bar bribery allegations. At the end of the day, it has become Sudheeran’s baby. So there is a big ‘if’ over whether the government will be able to reap electoral mileage out of it.”

Meanwhile, with bar owners having nothing to lose, skeletons have started falling out of the cupboard. Television chat shows have became avenues for the bar owners to bare all in this sordid story. The Bar Owners Association alleged that finance minister KM Mani had taken Rs 5 crore as bribe and promised to reopen the bars. The case went to the vigilance court which ordered a probe. The government appealed for a stay in the High Court. Refusing to interfere in the lower court’s order, senior High Court judge Kamal Pasha said: “I am reminded of the Shakespearean saying that Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion.’’ The writing was on the wall and Mani put in his papers.

Second in line was excise minister K Babu, who is alleged to have received bribes from a Thiruvananthapuram-based bar owner. Though Babu offered to step down after a vigilance court ordered a probe, he still survives on the strength of a stay order from the High Court.

The liquor lobby had achieved what even a strong opposition could not against the Chandy government. Following the solar scam revelations, the LDF had staged massive protests outside the Secretariat, the likes of which had never been witnessed in Kerala before. But even that pales in comparison to the blows the liquor lobby managed to land on the UDF.

All this led to a chain reaction on the political landscape of the state. After Mani resigned, the Kerala Congress (M) which had been a part of the UDF split, with one faction moving towards the LDF. This was another blow to the UDF with elections nearing.

BEER, WINE OUTLETS

While two, three and four star bars will not open any more, the state still has 27 five star bars, 345 beverage outlets and 33 clubs which can serve hard liquor. Along with this, the state government has given beer and wine licenses to all 806 bars which had been denied license renewal to sell hard liquor. This is an issue that is still debated in political circles here.

Under the new bar policy, every year, the government plans to reduce the beverage outlets by 10 percent to finally achieve total eradication by 2023. What would happen to the beer and wine outlets is still a mystery.

Another hurdle is how will the government control the flow of spurious liquor? Illicit liquor cases have already shown an increase in the last couple of years and enforcement agencies will have a tough job to ensure that hooch tragedies don’t occur again.

To mitigate these, the state government has launched a new drive against the use of narcotic substances and illicit alcohol. Titled “Subodham” or “good conscious”, this is project aimed at stepping up the campaign at various levels, leading to total eradication of booze by 2023. But for that to happen, a continuation in policy is a must.

The LDF is already shying away from making its liquor policy public. Even a taunt by Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi in Thiruvananthapuram last month failed to evoke any concrete reply from the CPM leadership. Bar owners are already pinning their hopes on the LDF if it comes to power in the 2016 assembly polls.

It remains to be seen if successive governments have the political will to transcend vested interests.

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