The Risks of an Alcohol Ban for God's Own Country by Shashi Tharoor

Published: September 01, 2014 10:49 IST
(Dr. Shashi Tharoor, a two-time MP from Thiruvananthapuram and the former Union Minister of State for External Affairs and Human Resource Development, is the author of 14 books, including, most recently, Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century.)

"Why on earth has Kerala gone for Prohibition?," friends have been asking me all week.

Their surprise is, at one level, understandable: Kerala has long been regarded as a haven for tipplers. Despite the closure of the ubiquitous arrack shops by the AK Antony government in 1996, alcohol of various (and varying) other qualities has been widely available throughout the state. Its reputation as a tourist paradise has also floated on a sea of easily available libations: the local palm toddy, the increasingly popular "Indian Made Foreign Liquor" (whose popularity grew after the ban on arrack and the resultant coarsening of the less-intoxicating toddy to appeal to hardened arrack-drinkers), and the more expensive fare distilled in Scotland, albeit at five-star prices. Kerala had even acquired the dubious reputation of being the state with the highest per capita consumption of spirits in India (in vain did some of us try to explain that it was not because we were particularly prone to drunkenness, but because we were honest enough to declare, and pay excise, on everything we drank, unlike, say, Punjab.)

So no one had ever thought that Kerala would ever consider going the Gujarat way and ban booze. Until, to universal exclamations of astonishment, we just did.

Some 712 bars are being closed after a final binge at the festival of Onam, Kerala's equivalent of Christmas and Diwali rolled into one. Sundays have been declared dry days; even five-star hotels cannot serve liquor on the Sabbath. The hundreds of outlets of the government-owned Kerala Beverages Corporation, or Bevco, which daily feature long queues of faithful swillers, will also be closed, at the rate of ten percent a year: community organizations are already clamouring for the outlets in their neighbourhoods to be amongst the first to be shut down. Soon, the only places that you will be able to get a drink in Kerala, aside from friends' homes, will be five-star hotels, of which the state boasts just 18 and there too, not on Sundays.

It should be pointed out, though, that however counter-intuitive this might seem, the decision has been widely hailed across the state. The influential Christian churches (all seven denominations of the Biblical faith) have applauded loudly, as have the political parties identified with the Christian community. The almost equally vocal Muslim leadership, including the ruling coalition's ally, the Muslim League, has done so as well. Working-class women, despairing of their feckless and bibulous husbands, have hailed the decision, as have traditionalists, Gandhians and assorted moralists, of which our country has no shortage. No public figure of any consequence in Kerala has stood up to oppose the decision.

And yet, there are objective reasons for surprise. Excise duties on liquor are a vital source of income for the state government, accounting for 22% of Kerala's revenues. Another 26% depends on tourism, both domestic and foreign. In addition, much of Kerala's economic viability depended upon attracting foreign investors, especially into the knowledge and services sectors, where the quality of life available in the state had to be a major draw (IT professionals in Bangalore tend to flock to that city's bars and pubs after their long hours on the job). In a state which boasts of little other industry and no other significant sources of income (except remittances from its working population abroad), it had been widely assumed that, morality aside, Kerala simply could not afford to do without widely, conveniently-available, and heavily-taxed liquor.

The assumption is right. But to make such a rational case overlooks the simple truth that politics is profoundly irrational.

The ruling Congress party in Kerala is led by a moralistic Gandhian who led a campaign for the state's bars to be closed. The issue was sparked off by the pending renewal of the licences of 438 bars which had been stalled by the election code of conduct, which the Congress chief did not want renewed once the code's restrictions were lifted. The pragmatists in Government resisted his call to scrap the licenses altogether, until they found themselves being portrayed, in intra-party arguments, as agents of the "liquor mafia" and worse. That was more than they could bear: if responsible stewardship of the state's finances meant being tarred with the "liquor mafia" brush, the Chief Minister decided, he would rather let the state go into debt than see his personal reputation sullied. Prohibition was the only choice available to salvage his image. He would not only not renew the 438 pending licenses, he would withdraw the licenses of every single bar in the state, except those catering to the affluent in five-star hotels.

The somewhat bizarre one up-manship of senior politicians competing with each other to prove they were holier-than-thou would have been amusing had the consequences not been so drastic. Once the decision was taken, there was no going back; no one wanted to be branded as a votary of the demon drink. But in the days since it was announced, and even while the applause is yet to die down across the state, grim reality has begin to beckon. Bar workers and distillery employees, some 20,000 across the state, will be thrown out of work; they and their families will soon be clamouring for relief, in a state with levels of unemployment so high that lakhs of Keralites go outside the state each year looking for work.

Tourism operators are already being stung by cancellations; one source claimed to me that 50% of the convention bookings in Kerala this winter - a majority of those scheduled for non-five-star hotels - have already been cancelled. IT companies contemplating moving to the clean, green, tech-friendly environment available in Kerala say the fact that their employees might not easily be able to enjoy a drink after work has given them pause.

Worse, few expect the decision will actually reduce drinking in Kerala. The Tamil Nadu government's alcoholic beverages corporation, TASMAC, has announced that it will open a string of new outlets along the length of the Kerala border, to cater to the demands of Keralite consumers, whose excise duties will now fill Tamil Nadu's coffers rather than Kerala's. Smugglers are reported to be readying plans and selecting routes to bring in quantities of liquor from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka to cater to the demands of parched Keralites. Worries are mounting that poor customers and those too far inland to shop in Tamil Nadu will be vulnerable to illicit and spurious or adulterated hooch, which might even kill them. The failure of prohibition in states like Andhra Pradesh and Haryana - both of which ended their liquor bans because their revenues suffered while their neighbours prospered - and the even more famous example of the United States, offers a salutary warning.

The ban targets drunkenness, social disorder and male irresponsibility (many labourers blow up a large proportion of their salaries at Bevco instead of spending them on household essentials), and so is widely popular. But it will also hurt the back-packing foreign tourist who wants a chilled beer on a hot day, the three-star hotel resident who seeks a glass of wine with her meal, and the hard-working professional who wants to let his hair down on a Sunday. If all these people desert "God's own Country", Paradise will not easily recover.

Keralites have sustained a welfare state with the best social development indicators in the country, buttressed by an array of government schemes that provide everything from well-stocked community health centres in the villages to subsidized medicines, unemployment insurance and one-rupee-a-kilo rice to BPL (Below the Poverty Line) cardholders. The government pays the salaries of tens of thousands of teachers, doctors, nurses, social workers and extension workers of all kinds. It does so through revenues made up overwhelmingly of excise on alcohol, tourism and remittances from Keralite workers abroad. When two of these three sources are drastically reduced, social services and the government payroll will have to be cut. Will the Keralite, accustomed to such benefits, accept that this is the unavoidable price to pay for the virtues of temperance? (No prizes for guessing the answer: Keralites are second to none in wanting to have their cake and eat it too.)

Some rumblings of discontent are already being heard amongst the very political leaders who have ostensibly endorsed the government's decision, though they are muttered in undertones rather than openly expressed. For any politician who opposes the ban will be instantly tarred as an advocate of alcohol, an agent of the "liquor mafia", and a bar-loving enemy of good, wholesome Gandhian values.  So political leaders remain unanimous in acquiescing in the decision, even while privately whispering their concern about its implications.

Half a century ago, my late father, talking about Bombay's Prohibition policy under which liquor could be obtained by anyone with a doctor's certificate certifying him to be an alcoholic, explained to me that "India is not only the world's largest democracy; we are also the world's largest hypocrisy." As his home state stumbles into a policy that none of its makers truly believes in but none can afford to disavow, I'd like to raise a toast to him: 50 years on, Dad, you're still right.

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