Regional cafe: Boozed out

By: |
Published: May 6, 2016 5:28:25 AM

In the excitement over introducing prohibition, freebies have taken a backseat in the Tamil Nadu elections

Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu are turning out to be very different this time round. There is no perceptible wave, no real issues and no anti-incumbency mood. It is going to be remembered as the election in which every political party tripped over itself in declaring its commitment to prohibition. Ever since a Gandhian activist died last year demanding prohibition—a little-known folk singer was also arrested on sedition charges for criticising alcohol consumption and the Jayalalithaa government—politicians have smelt an opportunity. The ruling party, the AIADMK, which held out for the longest period on prohibition, has promised that it will impose prohibition in stages.

Booze is big business in the state, bringing about R30,000 crore in revenue. Tamil Nadu has flirted with prohibition several times. Both the DMK and the AIADMK have imposed and lifted it. In 1983, the government under the then chief minister MG Ramachandran set up two corporations—one for wholesale marketing of liquor and another to manufacture it. The marketing unit was the Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation (Tasmac) and the manufacturing arm was Tamil Nadu Spirit Corporation (TASCO). The rationale was to “provide cheap and good quality liquor for those amongst the poor classes who consume.” By 1987, TASCO was shut down and private companies took over the manufacturing of liquor.

In November 2003, under Jayalalithaa, Tasmac took over the entire retail liquor business. The ostensible reason for doing this, according to the Tasmac website, was to completely eliminate the sale of contraband, spurious and non-duty-paid liquor in some licensed premises under the system of retail vending by private persons, which can affect the health of the liquor-consuming public. Tasmac is a runaway success and the sale of liquor has grown exponentially over the years, with targets set for each district.

Tasmac has 41 depots in five regions and runs over 6,800 retail outlets across the state. It procures beer locally from three manufacturers and hard liquor from six manufacturers. Certain alcohol products are imported from other states. Its revenue was R26,188 crore last year. According to government data, over 70 lakh people consume liquor every day through Tasmac outlets. In January 2016, the company sold 48.23 lakh cases of liquor. There is a study that says 11% of the boys in the age group of 13-16 drink alcohol in the state. Tamil Nadu also has the dubious distinction of having the maximum number of widows aged below 30 years. It is alcohol which has caused their husbands’ deaths, say activists. Even during the Chennai floods in December, Tasmac outlets did flourishing business.

All parties have said that they have plans to make up for the revenue loss that will come with prohibition. But they are somewhat vague about how they are going to do this. When prohibition is imposed, the administration will have to create de-addiction and healthcare infrastructure. To prevent proliferation of home brews and hooch, policing has to be strengthened. This would cause additional outflow of funds. One of the reasons always given for scrapping prohibition is to prevent deaths from illicit liquor. The DMK and the People’s Welfare Front (PWF) have given some indications on how they are going to handle prohibition, and one has to wait and watch to see how practical they are.

In all this excitement over introducing prohibition, freebies have taken a backseat. Even the DMK, which introduced freebies for the first time ever with colour TVs in 2006, has gone easy on this. It has, however, promised a slew of concessions and waivers, catering to various sections of people. It has promised mobile phones for the poor at concessional prices, free Wi-Fi internet for students, waiver on crop and educational loans, inclusion of free milk in nutritious meal scheme, and R60,000 assistance to women for marriage. All parties have promised jobs, money for the old and ailing, and so on. At the time of writing this, the AIADMK still had not come out with its manifesto. This has led to a bizarre speculation that it will offer the voter a choice of either a free LED TV, two-wheeler or a washing machine!

Election manifestos are not generally taken seriously, barring prohibition this time round. According to R Srinivasan, associate professor of econometrics, University of Madras, and former member of the State Planning Commission, Tamil Nadu, most of these election promises are fiscally unsustainable. “Success in Tamil Nadu elections has revolved around the politics of subsidies for decades. In 2016, the promise of prohibition is a significant addition to the political narrative. Fiscal space for Tamil Nadu is shrinking largely because of lax tax administration, and the next government will have to resort to additional borrowing if it were to both abolish prohibition and deliver upon election promises.”

To fulfil what has been promised, Tamil Nadu has to continue its growth track. Here again, the opposition parties have said that the Jayalaithaa government has paid scant attention to industrial growth and has not managed to bring in big-ticket projects. Stalin has said that the lack of progress had pushed the state back by 50 years. The result is that Tamil Nadu has suffered on all fronts—agriculture, industrial development and education.

Jayalalithaa has countered her critics by reeling out statistics. She pointed out that the state is among the top three preferred destinations for investment in the country. “The state had the second-highest GDP after Maharashtra, which is double the size of Tamil Nadu. And Tamil Nadu managing to come next to it is a huge achievement,” she says in her campaign speeches.

The development discourse causes a lot of confusion in the minds of politicians.

Recently, during a visit to Tamil Nadu, Nirmala Sitharaman, the minister of state for commerce & industry, said in a meeting in the morning that Tamil Nadu was leading in industrial development. In another meeting in the evening she declared that Dravidian parties have no vision for the state.

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