On Monday, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, while announcing a total lock-down on the state to enforce social distancing and thereby stem the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, ruled out closing the retail liquor outlets in the state. The chief minister justified this by pointing to a tweet by his Punjab counterpart Capt Amarinder Singh in which ‘beverage’ shops were classified under essential services.
He added that a knee-jerk decision to close down all retail liquor outlets in the state could have ‘social repercussions’ and that the state cannot afford such incidents at this juncture. However, to control crowds in front of such outlets, he said the government would ponder about introducing restrictions on timings. While dine-in services at bars will be suspended with immediate effect, the managements could sell liquor through counters.
Q. How is liquor sold in Kerala?
A: The Kerala State Beverages Corporation (BEVCO), a public-sector firm, has the liquor monopoly in the state and sells Indian-made Foreign Liquor (IMFL), beer and wine through its 330 retail outlets across 14 districts. On a much smaller scale, Consumerfed, an apex body of consumer cooperatives in Kerala, also runs 36 foreign liquor retail outlets and three beer shops. In addition, there are about 3500 toddy shops spread across the state selling palm toddy, a beverage made from sap of palm trees.
Q. How much money does the state make out of liquor?
A: Liquor sales in Kerala have been steadily increasing every year, thanks to the generous patronage among the tipplers especially during festive seasons such as Onam and Christmas-New Year. In 2018-19, BEVCO reported Rs 14,504 crores from the sale of liquor through its retail outlets. This was Rs 1567.58 crores more from the previous year sales of Rs 12,937.09 crores, indicating a rise of 12% in sales. By way of excise duty and sales tax on liquor, the government raked in Rs 11,000 crores last year.
In terms of quantity, 216.34 lakh cases of IMFL were sold in Kerala in 2018-19 and an additional 121.12 lakh cases of beer.
Q. Why is the government hesitant on imposing total prohibition on alcohol during the Covid-19 lockdown?
A: One, the state government has an eye on the revenue it generates from liquor sales especially at a time when its finances have been in a bad state. The state continues to reel under the effects of the demonetisation exercise, implementation of GST coupled with the economic impact of the back-to-back floods. It had also voiced its displeasure to the Centre in the case of the delay in the payment of GST compensation dues. Though businesses, private firms and traders have been facing a tough time due to the Covid-19 outbreak, the queues outside bars and retail outlets have not been impacted. There have also been concerns that the close contact between tipplers while waiting in queues could have an adverse impact on the transmission of the virus.
Two, perhaps more importantly, the government fears that a total ban on alcohol could induce ‘social consequences’ such as the flow of spurious liquor into the state and untold emotional impact on addicted tipplers in the state. Kerala has a history of tragedies induced by the consumption of illicit liquor such as arrack, most notably the one that took place in Vypeen in Ernakulam district killing over 70 people. A tragedy on a similar scale at this juncture could be catastrophic.
“I am completely opposed to the opening of liquor shops in the state, because there is a heavy chance of transmission as people stand in queues. There is a greed for liquor in the state and restrictions are not easy to be implemented,” said CR Neelakantan, a well-known social activist.
“But, even as I say that, it’s true what the chief minister said. If there is a total ban on alcohol, we cannot predict what will happen. There could be a hooch tragedy and that’s something the government cannot afford to risk at this point,” he added.
Q. Are there restrictions on retail liquor shops during the lockdown?
A: Excise Minister TP Ramakrishnan said Tuesday that such shops can operate between 10 am and 5 pm. Earlier, shops used to operate till 9 pm in the night.
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