The Left government in Kerala has decided to reopen a good number of liquor bars that were shut in tune with the liquor policy of the previous Congress-led UDF government. Thus, bars in three- and four-star hotels that are not entangled in any legal issues would be able to be back in business soon. However, a consensus was reached that bars along highways would be reopened only after the Supreme Court order in this regard was pronounced. Some 315 bars are active currently in Kerala, even after the dislocation issues caused by the Supreme Court’s distance-from-highway notification. Earlier, the UDF government’s excise policy had necessitated closure of all bars except those in the five-star hotels. “The LDF government’s liquor policy is not prohibition, but promoting abstinence from alcohol through a mission-mode de-addiction campaign,” said Vaikom Vishvan, convenor of the nodal panel of the ruling LDF. “Since there has been no fall in liquor sales after the closure of several bars during the previous UDF government’s rule, we have decided that the policy needs revision. The consumption of drugs and narcotics has gone up in leaps and bounds after the number of bars and liquor outlets went down. This necessitates a revision in the liquor policy.”
The LDF panel has given the nod for the draft liquor policy put forward by state excise minister TP Ramakrishnan, according to the LDF convenor. Later, the state cabinet also approved the policy. In 2016-2017, the state-owned Beverages Corporation or Bevco, the sole agency selling liquor in the state, posted revenues of Rs 10,050 crore. The new liquor policy of the Pinarayi Vijayan government proposes that the state would have different tourist zones, where bars would be allowed. MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences and events) tourism in God’s Own Country had taken a harsh beating after the previous government’s liquor policy put severe constraints on the serving of liquor even in tourist spots.
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One new feature would be the star status to coconut palm toddy. Toddy would not only be made available in five-star hotels but a toddy board will be set up again in the public sector to support the indigenous toddy industry. Star grading of beer and wine parlours would continue, with one-star and two-star beer parlours retained.
From 730 bars in March 2014, the previous UDF government’s liquor policy had mandated that liquor be served only in 27 five-star bars and 32 clubs. As the Supreme Court ordered action against substandard bars, 418 bars were told to down shutters. Later, 250 two- and three-star bars were shut on October 30, 2015. Within 24 hours, a division bench ordered these 250 bars and 12 other bars to reopen. These stayed active till some of them had their licence expired the following March.
Subsequently, when the Supreme Court order regarding the functioning of liquor vends on national and state highway came, the state excise department had ordered the closure of 1,956 liquor outlets and bars.
While bar owners and tourism operator are sipping champagne over the change in policy, Catholic bishops, who have been spearheading the anti-liquor campaign, are hardly amused. The Kerala Catholic Bishops Council had made clear its strong reservations against the Vijayan government readying to liberalise the state’s liquor policy. And while, state Congress chief Ramesh Chennithala said his party would team up with the bishops to oppose the proliferation of bars, former KPCC chief VM Sudheeran alleged the LDF was in cahoots with bar owners.
Meanwhile, in an interesting development, the state excise department rejected an application from Soosapakiam, the Latin Archbishop of Thiruvananthapuram, to enhance the annual quota for producing wine for mass from the current 250 litres to 2,500 litres. Ironically, excise department figures point out that the 30-odd church denominations in Kerala that vehemently oppose liquor availability have licences for 95,412 litres of wine per year.