As an outcome of a tussle between Kerala Congress president V M Sudheeran and chief minister Oommen Chandy over the renewal of liquor licences of 418 “sub-standard” hotels in the state, the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) Thursday finalised steps to ensure a “liquor-free Kerala” over the next decade.
As per the UDF decision, the 418 bars would remain closed, while liquor licences of another 312 would not be renewed after this fiscal. Only five-star hotels would be allowed liquor licence from the next fiscal. At present, Kerala has 753 bar hotels.
Besides, the Kerala State Beverages Corporation (Bevco), the sole retail distributor of Indian made foreign liquor (IMFL) in Kerala, would bring down 10 per cent of its outlets every year. Bevco currently has 338 outlets in Kerala.
The decision is as an outcome of the tussle between Chandy and Sudheeran. While Chandy and his camp wanted that standard hotels be allowed to open bars, Sudheeran wanted them shut. Sudheeran enjoyed the support of the Church, social organisations and Congress allies.
Acting on petitions from bar hotel owners, the Kerala High Court last week asked the government to take a decision on the renewal of liquor licences without delay. It had asked the government to examine the closed bars for their standard and submit a report before August 26. Besides, the court sought to examine the liquor policy of the state government.
At the time, the situation looked favourable for standard hotels. However, Sudheeran raised the pitch by saying that there was no question of reopening closed bars. Catholic bishops and Muslim clerics backed him and those who stood for reopening bar hotels were dubbed agents of the liquor lobby.
This campaign forced the Chandy group to try and outsmart Sudheeran by suddenly demanding total prohibition. Sudheeran, who advocates total prohibition, said the decision was unanimous and a courageous one.
On Thursday, Chandy told the media that “liquor-free Kerala” was the new policy of the state government. “The UDF would present its recommendation to the government, which has the freedom to take a decision. We have sought a legal opinion on the issue,” said Chandy.
The decisions, if implemented, would hit the hotel industry, which has been growing over the past decade given the state’s thrust on tourism. If liquor sale is stopped, the survival of several three-star hotels would be affected. However, these bar hotels account only for 25 per cent of the total liquor business in Kerala.
The decision to restrict the business of Bevco, which distributes liquor to hotels and runs its own chain of outlets, would force the cash-strapped government to scout for new avenues of income. In the last fiscal, 22 per cent of the state’s income was sourced from the sale of IMFL.
Chandy said that the government would rehabilitate employees who would lose their jobs following closure of bars and liquor outlets. At the same time, the government would protect toddy tappers, he said.
Chandy said the government wanted total prohibition in a phased manner within the next decade: “Kerala should be prepared to accept total prohibition within this period.’’
He said that apart from the first day of every month, all Sunday would be declared dry days. “This would ensure another 52 dry days in a year.”