Musafir Says

Can Kerala go dry?

OPINION 

This is a move with major ramifications on the tourism sector in ‘God’s’ backyard. The announcement by Kerala chief minister Oommen Chandy that Kerala, which has the highest per capita consumption of alcohol in India at 11.1 litres per person per year in 2010-11, will be on the road to becoming a ‘dry state’ in a decade’s time, will possibly have an impact on the state tourism.

kl-liq-adThe chief minister has addressed the concerns of the tourism sector by saying that as liquor would be available in five star hotels. At least for now, though the state envisages that every year, 10 per cent of the Kerala State Beverages Corporation (Bevco) outlets will be closed down. Liqour will now be available in liquor bars in five star hotels, and the states’ 400-odd retail liquor shops. Toddy will also continue to be sold.

The UDF on Thursday cleared the liquor policy that states from next fiscal, only five-star hotels in Kerala can serve liquor. “We have now got legal opinion that the 312 bars that are now open can be closed any time as the license was given subject to the new liquor policy. So we need not wait till the end of this fiscal to shut them down, Chandy said. “We are now giving a call to the people of the state to contribute one day’s income to a new fund which has been named as the Kerala Alcohol Education Research Rehabilitation Compensation Fund to be used for all these activities,” he said Chandy. From October 2, apart from the already declared dry days, all Sundays and the first day of each month would be dry days, he said.

The state stands to lose about Rs 8,000 crore in revenue annually. Chandy countered by saying that the indirect loss caused due to the ill-effects of alcohol such as accidents and alcohol induced crimes are a few times more than the revenue earned by the state.

Reactions from the tourism industry were immediate. “The proposed changes in the excise policy would mark a regressive step and deal a setback to the flourishing tourism industry in the state,” Federation of Hotel & Restaurant Associations of India (FHRAI) president S.M. Shervani said. “These restrictions will also send a negative message to those investors, who are currently contemplating large investments in Kerala’s hospitality sector. FHRAI urges the Government of Kerala to take a pragmatic and long-term view in this matter, and we recommend that all classified and government approved hotels and restaurants should be eligible for bar licenses.”

Kerala relies heavily on its tourism revenue – about Rs 23,000 crore in 2013.

However the state also suffers socially as increasing liquor consumption is leading to other social ills. An Los Angeles Times report in 2013 says alcohol is the lifeblood of Kerala. The article says alcohol abuse is linked to 44% of the state’s road accidents, 19% of government hospital cases and 80% of divorces. High profile victims of alcohol abuse have included movie director John Abraham, who fell off a building and died after reportedly having one too many, and poet A. Ayyappan.

Like much else in the state, liquor trade too has political divides. There has been a strong anti liquor movement in the state, and the support of the ruling Congress led to this move. The liquor sector is dominated politically powerful communities which will be impacted by this decision.

The experiences of other states that have prohibition – Gujarat, Nagaland, Manipur and Lakshadweep – do not point to a positive response here. In a state where social drinking is common, habits are unlikely to suddenly change. The lack of locall supplies is likely to be met by smuggling and spurious liquor. Neighbouring states and enclaves such as Mahe are likely to become greater suppliers. The liquor underworld supply will only increase.

While alcoholism is a serious issue in the state, surely the government could have looked at global examples to check this social malaise. The World Health Organization, EU, national governments have formed alcohol policies in order to reduce the harm of alcoholism. Targeting adolescents and young adults is regarded as an important step to reduce the harm of alcohol abuse. Increasing the age at which alcohol can be purchased, the banning or restricting advertising of alcohol has been recommended as additional ways of reducing the harm of alcohol dependence and abuse. Kerala would perhaps do better in checking the rampant alcoholism due to consumption of locally brewed often harmful spurious substances.

How serious Kerala is about this step will be tested in the coming years. Even if it does overcome the revenue shortfall, its image will suffer unless it is able to formulate a policy that checks alcohol abuse but also allows for availability of liquor for those who legally want it.

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