The Kerala government’s misguided decision to introduce prohibition in the state received the Supreme Court’s approval on Tuesday. A two-member bench dismissed a bunch of pleas by bar owners and upheld the state’s decision to close down liquor bars — over 700 of them — except those in five-star hotels. In doing so, the court invoked the Directive Principles in the Constitution and claimed that “strict state regulation is imperative” to discourage regular and excessive consumption of alcohol. At best, the government, and now the court, show pious intent.
In fact, historical evidence shows that prohibition does not encourage or enable people to quit drinking. Rather, prohibition tends to drive the trade underground and creates a market for spurious liquor. Neither government nor the court appears to have studied the experience of states like Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, which have tried to implement prohibition in the past — unsuccessfully so. By all accounts, the Kerala policy is a populist decision impelled by factional politics within the ruling Congress party and campaigns by a section of the clergy on ostensibly moral grounds. Alcoholism does critically impact the household budgets of the poor and may lead to domestic violence. However, since liquor will be traded at state outlets for a few more years — these are to be closed at the rate of 10 per cent over a decade — the policy may only help to shift the drinking space from bar to home or other private spaces. Instead of the state insisting on prohibition, a more practical and effective strategy might be for non-state actors to step up the campaign for abstention.
The apex court’s decision to exclude five-star hotels from the ambit of prohibition seems unreasonable and arbitrary. The exemption was sought by the government on the grounds that it was necessary to protect the tourism industry. Such preferential treatment, however, discriminates against a large segment of the tourism industry and ignores their right to a level playing field. Kerala attracts tourists from different strata of society, including the upper crust. The government should go for a more rational and reasonable framework when the liquor policy is up for annual review next year.