Gods dry country

Written by M Sarita Varma | Updated: Aug 23 2014, 08:12am hrs
Fed up with the dubious crown of the statethat it is the countrys highest per-capita liquor consuming statethe Kerala government is readying to go the Gujarat way. Unlike the four Indian statesGujarat, Nagaland, Mizoram and Manipurwhich currently ply complete prohibition, Keralas newly-unfolded prohibition-focused liquor policy would force its cash-strapped state exchequer to abstain from about R10,000 crore Indian-made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) revenues, not to speak of the indirect impact on the R23,000-crore tourism inflows.

The state government-run liquor outlets will be phased out over 10 years, chief minister Oommen Chandy had said on Thursday evening, after a politically-turbulent meeting of the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) government, which is the ruling coalition in Kerala.

By official statistics, the liquor consumption in Kerala per person was 1.76 gallons in 2013. This is more likely to be an underestimation, especially if one factors in the rare liquor brands that the states enormous NRI diaspora brings home to the consumption pool, the Archbishop of Latin Catholic Church of Thiruvananthapuram, Maria Callist Soosa Pakiam, told FE.

Since the coastal belt of Kerala, which was more vulnerable to alcoholism and its battering impact on families, coincided a great deal with the Churchs parishes, the Bishops are at the forefront in trying to get the state out of the liquor abuse. Concerted efforts are needed to avoid illicit liquor tragedies, while closing down the IMFL outlets, he said.

The Syro-Malankara Catholic Church is also elated by the prohibition course announced. Within hours of the announcement of the prohibition-oriented liquor policy, the president of the Indian Bishops Conference, Cardinal Baselios Cleemis Thottunkal, met chief minister Chandy to congratulate him for the bold move to make the state alcohol-free. Further, he also handed over to Chandy a token cheque of $1,600 for a fund proposed to rehabilitate the employees of the liquor shops slated to be axed.

The Indian Union Muslim League (IUML)a coalition partner in the UDFhad also been pressing for the closure of bars.

The following is the chief ministers plan. In the short run, liquor will be allowed to be sold only in 5-star hotel bars. Sundays will be dry days. About 730 bars will be shut down. About 10% of the 338 liquor shops owned by a state-run monopoly will be shut every year. Chandy further added that the UDF government was willing to brave the economic losses for the larger social gains.

CPI (M), which heads the opposition LDF (the Left Democratic Front), has not flayed the UDFs liquor policy. In fact, the CPI (M)which had won an assembly election on the steam of protests against AK Antony governments ban on arrack in 1995is even ready to support the move to close down the bars in hotels as well. Our only caveat is that the bar employees should be re-employed, said the party secretary Pinarayi Vijayan.

Vijayan, however, expressed some sarcasm, stating that Chandys prohibition move was brought about more because of the cracks within the UDF coalition and within the Congress, rather than out of any idealism. The UDF had met on Thursday to decide the fate of the 418 bars closed in April for filthy upkeep. After a long-drawn war of nerves between the state Congress president VM Sudheeran and Oommen Chandy, the Congress leadership took some legal opinion and decided to shut down the remaining 312 bars too.

In 2012-13, Kerala had gulped down 2.44 crore IMFL cases and 1 crore cases of beer, by far the largest in the country. It would be nearly impossible for the state government to give up both the bar licence income and the liquor duties, as they total nearly one-sixth of the overall revenues of the government, said Rajkumar Unni, president, State Bar Association.

The tourism industry, which has been a cash-cow (R22,926.55 crore in 2013) for the state economy ever since the success of the Gods Own Country branding in global tourism meets, could also find the absence of free flow of liquor embarrassing. The decision could give wrong signals to potential investors in the tourism sector, said EM Najeeb, who heads a leading travel company.

Despite the euphoria over the phenomenal social maturity in the liquor policy, a piece of simple maths raises some inevitable complexities as far as the road ahead is concerned.

Keralas total revenue receipts in 2013-14 stood at R54,966 crore. The revenue deficit stood at R6,208 crore. Would the R10,000-crore IMFL revenue abstinence make this a more yawning deficit What if there are fall-outs in tourism-related income too The UDFs bubbling idealism is yet to uncork clear answers to these questions.