Kerala’s march to be zero-alcohol state sparks debate

Kerala's march to be zero-alcohol state sparks debateTHIRUVANANTHAPURAM: Even as the Congress led UDF government headed by Oommen Chandy won laurels in the initial round of debates over its “bold decision” to shut over 700 liquor bars, questions have surfaced if the cash-strapped state would be able make up the huge revenue loss left by the clampdown on liquor trade.

While owners of 730 bar-attached hotels of below five star category who have lost licenses hold that the decision would push the hospitality industry into a deep crisis, Chief Minister Oommen Chandy has asserted that the “social cost” to be saved by cutting down on liquor will be far higher than revenue flowing to the exchequer through liquor sales.

The Kerala State Beverages Corporation (Bevco), sole distributor of Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL), recorded a sales turnover of Rs 8818.18 crore in 2012-13, earning the state the negative reputation of having one of the highest per capita liquor consumption.

According to Bevco figures, in the first four-and-half months of the current fiscal sales crossed Rs 3754.67 crore.

Bevco contributed a hefty Rs 7240.89 crore in 2012-13 and in four months of this fiscal brought to the exchequer Rs 3127.02 crore.

Liquor sales has been the virtual monopoly of Bevco after arrack was banned in Kerala in 1996 by the UDF ministry, headed by A K Antony.

Since then, IMFL consumption has increased steadily from 32.52 lakh cases in 1995-96 to 244.33 lakh cases.By mid August of the current fiscal, 99.55 lakh cases had already been sold.

Beer consumption has also shown a sharp rise in this period.

The decision to close down the bars was taken last week after the issue of renewing licenses of 418 bars snowballed into a crisis in the Congress.

While KPCC president V M Sudheeran took an adamant posture against a soft policy towards bar owners, sections in the party was for a “realistic and practical” approach rather than keeping the bars shut for ever.

As the issue dragged on without a resolution since April this year, an impression gained ground that Chandy stood for a practical solution, which struck down by acting firm and fast when the issue reached the UDF leadership meet.

Political analysts term it as a “master stroke” by Chandy that outwitted his rivals in the Congress as well as the LDF opposition, who found it difficult to oppose the decision, fearing a popular backlash. It is also significant that the very next day of the UDF formulating the policy, government notified the new liquor regime without even waiting for the financial year to close.

Apart from closing down bars, the number of sales outlets of Bevco would be closed down by 10 per cent every year. This would mean 39 sales counters would be closed down a year, starting from the Gandhi Jayanthi day on October 2.

Interestingly, the first lot of liquor sales counters to be shut will include one on the outskirts of the temple town of Guruvayur.

The Government has also made it clear that it has plans to cancel licenses issued for elite clubs to serve liquor and also ban it on public occasions like receptions and parties.

What is surprising, as is evident from responses, is that even anti-liquor campaigners including Gandhian outfits, did not expect such a radical shift by the government all of a sudden. They have hailed the move as the “boldest” after the arrack ban brought in at the personal initiative of Antony.

Glossing over the stunning impact of the decision, bar owners, who met in Kochi on Sunday, said they would challenge it in court as it involved legal issues including denial of “natural justice.”

According to Government sources, a major challenge in the coming days is to effectively prevent flow of liquor and spirit from other states.

A meticulous action plan is being worked out by the Excise and Home departments to tackle this issue which would include deployment of enforcement contingents in sufficient numbers at border points.

The authorities are aware that the days to follow are going to be crucial as Malayalis’ biggest festival ‘Onam’ is due in the first week of September. Statistics show that liquor sales soar during the Onam season.

Amid the cacophony of arguments for and against the government’s move to lead the state to total prohibition within a decade, the issue had a spin off with Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam of the Ezhava community questioning churches being allowed to use wine for religious rituals while other categories of hard liquor are being phased out.

Church authorities, however, slammed SNDP’s comments against wine being part of the sacrament during mass.–PTI

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