Will a cocktail of caste, revenue loss derail Chandy's prohibition plan?

Amid the cheer and dissent building around the state-proposed liquor prohibition in Kerala a popular news show on television, with a generous dose of empathy, dubbed the state’s drinkers as “victims” of image politics.

The jury is still out on what led the ruling front to the prohibition agenda even as political analysts maintain that it was chief Minister Oommen Chandy outsmarting critics within the Congress party with a populist and largely unexpected decision.

The Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) government has decided to shut down all the 712 bars in the state by mid-September this year (bars in five-star hotels will continue to function) and implement phased prohibition over 10 years.

A week after the decision was formalised, its potential implications are still clouded by a hazy mix of optimism, resentment, political one-upmanship and caste-religion dynamics.

Leaders of the Congress party and its allies continue to hit headlines claiming parts they had played in the landmark decision and Chandy is busy hosting groups of activists ecstatic about the prohibition plan for the state that has the country’s highest per-capita liquor consumption rate.

But before the cheer sets in, the government is in a huddle to prepare a roadmap to follow up on the decision; the challenges ahead are many.

Chandy and minister for finance K M Mani have repeatedly underlined the huge financial burden the government would run into with prohibition but reiterated the resolve to go ahead with the plan because its “positives” outweighed the implications of financial losses.

The government will also cut down 10 per cent of the state-run Beverages Corporation (Bevco) outlets every year. With the new liquor policy in place, the state government is set to lose Rs 1,811 crore annually. But the rationale behind closing down bar hotels when the state government itself continues to monopolise retail sales of liquor is lost on many.

Lawyer and social activist Sivan Madathil feels that the government has taken a “hasty, political decision” that also smacks of hypocrisy.  “It’s not clear on what the government is proposing to achieve with this policy when close to 85 per cent of liquor sales is done through the state-run Bevco outlets that will continue to operate,” he told Deccan Herald.

Reports are emerging on dissent brewing within the ruling front and the State Cabinet against the urgency with which the prohibition proposal was firmed up but political analysts believe that all key players in the scene are maintaining public endorsement of the policy also because of the social-cause goodwill involved.

In the bipolar political spaces of Kerala, the possibility of a follow-up to the policy by subsequent governments becomes critical. The CPI(M)-led opposition Left Democratic Front (LDF) has, so far, remained guarded in its responses; while extending in-principle support to the move, the Left leaders have demanded rehabilitation of bar workers and Bevco employees.

But some of them have also endorsed conspiracy theorists who see the prohibition plan as Chandy’s masterstroke; a clever, pre-emptive strike that pitches him above the “idealist” Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) president V M Sudheeran who had repeatedly criticised the government on moves that purportedly favoured liquor lobbies.

Extensive consequences

Beyond the scope of an ongoing power struggle in the Congress party, the proposed prohibition carries potential for far-reaching socio-economic change in the state. The Kerala Bar Hotel Owners Association, on expected lines, has approached the High Court against the shutdown move.

Tourism industry players in the state are also lining up meetings and representations to the government seeking a re-look on the proposal.

E M Najeeb, Chairman of the Confederation of Tourism Industry-Kerala, said the government should “seriously consider” the damage prohibition could do to tourism industry in Kerala. “This is an industry with inflows of about Rs 25,000 crore with huge investments in place in the hospitality sector. There’s serious concern about the prohibition move among international tour operators and we have already started seeing many cancellations,” Najeeb said. 

Adding to the mix is the religion and caste equation; exemption of wine from the restrictions has led to allegations that the government is playing it safe with the Church.

The critics also claim that the new liquor policy is skewed considering most of the bar hotels in the state are owned by Hindus with members of the Ezhava community forming a big share of owners and workers. Vellapalli Natesan – prominent Ezhava leader and general secretary of the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana (SNDP) Yogam – has taken on the government and dared it to ban serving of wine in churches. Natesan who himself owns bars was expected to hit back but the Congress also has critics in its own backyard who see the policy as unfair to Ezhavas.

The varied tangents of debate around the policy point to a tough ask at hand for the government as it sets out to implement the prohibition plan. According to Minister for Excise K Babu, the Excise Department is short of officials required for effective implementation of the proposal.

The ministry has already sought circle inspectors in 12 new taluks formed in the state. An Excise Department report has highlighted the need for restructuring excise ranges in the state and proposed 35 new ranges. Babu said the plan had to be backed up with a more effective intelligence network, better equipped check-posts and a continued focus on awareness campaigns that validate the government’s decision.

Sivan Madathil, while agreeing with concerns on the impact of unchecked alcohol consumption, echoed the High Court’s observation that the new liquor policy had to be ratified within the constitutional framework.

“There’s no denying the relevance of creating more awareness against alcoholism but it’s also relevant that this liquor policy, ultimately, is a political decision aimed at settling political scores,” he said. 

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