Five years after it started on the path to becoming a dry state, Kerala’s government is now considering opening pubs here. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan Monday said there have been complaints that professionals who work late hours in the state have few means of entertainment, and pubs could be of help in the scenario. Last month, the government had decided to give licences to small breweries that make wine and low-alcohol content liquor from locally available fruits.
So what is the reason behind the LDF government’s sharp swerve from its predecessor’s no-liquor policy — a move that has led to the Opposition accusing it of accepting money from the “liquor lobby”?
The previous Congress-led UDF government in Kerala had envisaged total prohibition in Kerala by 2025, and, as a step towards it, had in 2014 closed down all bars in hotels with a rating below five stars. Ever since the LDF came to power in 2016, it has been chipping away at the no-liquor policy. In June 2017, it allowed hotels with three and four star ratings to sell Indian-made foreign liquor (IMFL). Two-star hotels were allowed to run beer/wine parlours, provided they did not violate the Supreme Court order banning sale of alcohol within 500 metres of highways. It had also allowed bars to stay open till 11 pm from the earlier 10 pm, allowed serving of liquor in hotels’ banquet halls in on payment of a fee, and permitted availability of liquor at domestic launches of airports.
Why the soft approach
Till 2014, Kerala had the country’s highest per capita consumption of liquor — 8.3 litres a year. The LDF government says the crackdown on the liquor industry has cost the state a huge number of jobs, and also hit the tourism sector adversely. However, the government has made it a point to offer more than economic justifications.
CM Vijayan says his government believes in restraint, not prohibition. He claims the use of drugs had gone up alarmingly ever since prohibition came into force. “The liquor policy of UDF, which envisaged total prohibition, was a complete fiasco,” he had said in 2017, after allowing hotels to sell liquor.
“The UDF policy was impractical and had led to an alarming rise in the use of drugs. The LDF policy aims at abstinence. The government will start more de-addiction centres and will strengthen the existing ones.’’ In keeping with the not-promoting-alcohol-at-cost-of-health policy, the LDF government has raised the minimum age for purchasing liquor in the state from 21 to 23. On Monday, when he said his government was considering opening pubs, the Chief Minister also said the existing Kerala Beverages Corporation (Bevco) outlets would be refurbished to provide customers with better facilities and to make sure they don’t have to stand in long queues. Both the BJP and the Congress have accused the government of “cheating people” and “bowing down to the liquor lobby”. But for now, Kerala bars and their customers seem to have much to cheer about.