In Kerala, the state with the highest per capita liquor consumption in the country, tipplers have always had their way. While the United Democratic Front (UDF) Thursday decided to phase out liquor consumption in Kerala, the past shows that all efforts by successive governments to restrain alcohol consumption have failed.
In fact, after 418 bar hotels were closed in April, the revenue of the Kerala State Beverages Corporation (Bev-co) grew by 21 per cent in the past four months as compared to the same period last year. The business of bars that remained open increased manifold.
On Friday, Chief Minister Oommen Chandy said all bars, except 16 five-star ones, will be closed by the end of 2014. Of the retail outlets, 39 would be closed on October 2 this year.
However, going by the current trend, people will just move to the outlets that remain open, experts said. Excise officials said the emerging situation will be conducive to bootlegging and illicit brewing. Of the 14 districts in Kerala, 10 border Karnataka or Tamil Nadu, where there is no restriction on liquor sale.
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The number of cases reported under the Abkari Act, which deals with smuggling of spirits and Indian made foreign liquor (IMFL), in the past few years may give an idea of what’s in store. In 2008, the state police reported 1,975 cases under the Abkari Act. In 2010, the figure rose to 37,896 and in 2013, it reached 48,828. Till May this year, 20,120 such cases were registered.
Narcotics cases have also been rising. In 2008, the state police recorded 508 narcotics cases, but in 2013, the number reached 974. Till May this year, the figure had reached 592.
Congress leader K Muraleedharan admitted the government has a tough task at hand. “We decided to close all bars to avoid allegations of discrimination. This is an experiment, let us see what happens,” said Muraleedharan. CPM politburo member Kodiyeri Balakrishnan said by allowing five-star hotels to keep licences, the government is corporatising the liquor business. The attempt to cut down liquor consumption in Kerala started in 1996 when the then Congress CM A K Antony ordered a ban on cheap country arrack. At the time, 5,600 arrack shops were closed. The CPM-led Opposition had then challenged Antony to ban IMFL. Instead, Antony slapped a 200 per cent tax on IMFL — the highest in any Indian state. Besides, the annual licence fee of IMFL bars was increased from Rs 6 lakh to Rs 10 lakh. Now, the fee is Rs 22 lakh.
When arrack was banned, Kerala only had 411 hotels with licence to sell IMFL. The IMFL business grew since 1996 and, riding on the tourism wave, new hotel projects came up.
The period since 1996 was also marked by liquor addiction. The younger generation, who earned more from sunrise industries, started consuming liquor in the evenings. Higher wages also kept the unskilled and semi-skilled workers flowing towards cheap bars and Bevco outlets. In the last fiscal, the Bevco turnover was Rs 9,350 crore.
In the second half of the past decade, Kerala started discussing the ill effects of alcohol addiction as incidents of domestic violence went up. The impact on health and higher incidents of road accidents fuelled the debate, but alcohol consumption continued to increase. Meanwhile, the government mulled several steps. The first day of every month was declared a dry day, but tipplers started stocking extra bottles in advance.
Another step was to reduce the working hours of bars. Since 1953, bars in Kerala remained open from 6 am to midnight. Two years ago, the government reduced it by three hours per day. However, that too failed to bring down liquor consumption.