Faced with bribery charges, economic and legal setbacks, Congress government in Kerala on Thursday partially rolled back its new liquor policy borne out of battle between Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and Congress state chief V M Sudheeran. The government withdrew dry day norm on Sundays and decided to sanction beer and wine parlours for 418 bars closed since April this year.
Chief Minister Oommen Chandy told the media after the cabinet meeting that the spirit of the policy – to bring down liquor consumption – would stay. The decision to close down the now operating 312 bars in the non-five-star category would remain unchanged, but would depend on the court decision. If those 312 bars have to be closed for their liquor sale, they would also be allowed to run as beer parlours. (The high court had allowed 312 bars to function until January 10 pending disposal of appeals against the new liquor policy).
Chandy said that Sunday-dry-day was withdrawn in view of 60 per cent increase in the retail sale of liquor on Saturdays. Besides, it had impacted the tourism industry as several weekend conferences have been shifted out of Kerala. “The change in the liquor policy was also against the backdrop of the suicide of 10 bar hotel workers since August,” said Chandy.
Chandy justified the decision to allow bars to emerge as beer and wine parlours, saying that the new liquor policy was silent on that sector. He said a commission had earlier recommended promoting beer and toddy, which have less alcohol content. The bar hotel owners have to ensure job for the workers when the hotels are granted beer parlour licence, he said.
A major factor that forced the government to water down its liquor policy was the charges leveled against finance minister K M Mani that he had taken a bribe of Rs 1 crore to renew liquor licence. Bar hotel owners were taken revenge upon Mani, who stood with the Catholic Church in demand for total prohibition, after accepting election fund. Now, Mani is facing a Vigilance probe.
The allegation had rattled the UDF government as bar hotel owners upped the ante saying that they had given Rs 20 crore for various ruling front leaders. This threat coupled with Mani’s predicament had forced the government to partially change the liquor police, disregarding the stiff opposition from KPCC president V M Sudheeran. The other day, UDF had allowed the government to bring in necessary changes in the liquor policy.
The state government had suffered setbacks in the high court, which questioned the logic of allowing only five-star bars. The court exempted the four and heritage category hotels from the purview of closure. In another order, the court asked the government to grant licence to 20-odd fresh applications in four-star grade.
In the meantime, the tourism and labour departments reported to the government that the new liquor policy had led to loss in tourism sector and put at stake job of hundreds of hotel employees. The houseboat industry also had urged the government to change the liquor policy claiming that the news about prohibition had reduced the flow of tourists to Kerala.
In last three months, all political parties in the ruling front, except Indian Union Muslim League, had changed their approach towards the new liquor policy.