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Is Kerala’s Decision To Close Down Bars A Good Idea? Let’s Not Drink To That Just Yet

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Men drink beer at a restaurant in Hanoi July 20, 2009. In smaller markets in Southeast Asia such as Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, beer drinking is becoming a popular past time due to rising disposable income and relatively young populations who are embracing the party scene. Market research firm Euromonitor International says Asia is the most dynamic region globally in volume for beer, with average annual growth of 8 percent between 2003 and 2008. China is the world's biggest beer market and India's $12 billion alcohol market has been enjoying 12-15 percent annual growth. To match feature ALCOHOL/ASIA   REUTERS/Kham (VIETNAM FOOD SOCIETY) - RTR25USR
Source:  REUTERS/Kham 

When the proposed liquor ban in Kerala became news in 2014, I had hoped for some reprieve from the long, serpentine, orderly queues one witnesses outside government-run alcohol outlets. Despite all the blame foisted on liquor-guzzling denizens of the state for increasing criminal and anti-social activities, their calm and patient demeanor in those queues offered a sharp contrast. The loss of such paradoxical, yet hilarious sights would have been my only grouse with the ban.

But wait, the state has not pioneered a landmark prohibition policy as I had initially presumed. It’s initial blanket ban was watered down significantly over the months. Closely read along with the apex court’s recent approval for the Kerala government’s design to shut down bars, except those with a five-star tag, the policy seems a tough balancing act. One with more cons than pros.

What Is The Ban All About?

The prologue of Kerala’s bar ban story began last year when Chief Minister, Oommen Chandy refused to renew the licenses of 418 bars in the state citing ‘the dearth of required facilities’. This was followed by a prohibition plan calling for closure of all private bars (713), except those of the five-star category (27). In what was deemed a respite though, the state has allowed bars to continue operating as beer and wine parlors, eschewing the sale of hard liquor (whisky, brandy, rum etc.). After a fruitless legal tussle in the Kerala High Court, bar owners of 3 and 4 star bars moved the Supreme Court for an intervention to curtail the ‘discriminatory’ liquor plan rolled out by the government. The apex court, however, upheld the High Court order while entrusting the state with all powers to “at least contain, if not curtail, consumption of alcohol” at its own discretion.

Why It May Work

Different statistics offer varying figures about the annual alcohol consumption in Kerala. Suffice is to say that it has reached meteoric proportions, to the tune of about 14 percent of the annual national consumption, to force the government’s hand at last. Every festival or mass celebration is marred by stupendous liquor sales, coupled with worrying ramifications for the youth and working population. Similar to the drug crisis in Punjab, the ready availability of liquor severely affects even adolescents and minors in Kerala who take up drinking on a whim.

The bar ban will hit the lower and middle-income groups the most, as they are the chief patrons of small-scale private bars. For instance, many daily wage earners, turned tipplers, spend a significant share of their pay on liquor, leading to loss of income for their families. A study indicates that almost 50 percent of the cases of domestic violence registered in the state are a consequence of alcoholism.

The government also hopes that social drinkers frequenting 5-star haunts would not be driven by a compulsive desire to drink themselves into a stupor.

While the nexus between alcohol and violent behaviour has not been scientifically established yet, the state plans to arrest the total familial and social deterioration through a phased prohibition attempt. In a bid to ensure total prohibition by 2023, it has also laid down guidelines to shut down 10 percent of all retail outlets in the state every year over the next decade. If successful, it could be a worthy precedent for other states like Bihar, which wish to set up a prohibition framework.

The state’s programme is backed by civil society, especially women, as well as religious groups, giving it a boost. The legal sanction granted by the Supreme Court has further bolstered its cause.

Why It May Not Work Wonders

Given the failure of no-alcohol policies in other Indian states like Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Mizoram and Tamil Nadu in the past, the present plan of Kerala invites a fair amount of skepticism about its viability. With bootlegging and underground sales thriving in states like Gujarat, which already have a liquor ban in place, chances of success for Kerala are bleak, lest it impose a stringent regulatory policy.

The excise department is ill-equipped to check compliance of the new anti-alcohol programme. On an average, range offices have only ten to fifteen officials each with an overall state total of 5000 officers, making it severely lacking to carry out raids, check illegal sales etc. Adding to the department’s woes, drug abuse in the state has spiked with liquor addicts looking for fresher avenues. As a precursor to the crisis, sale of spurious alcohol, arrack and smuggling of Indian-made foreign liquor from Karnataka and Goa has increased as well.

The feeble attempt to wean away tipplers from hard alcohol began with the promotion of beer and wine parlors in the state. However, of the 800 odd beer and wine bars, more than 500 are on the verge of closure owing to heavy losses incurred over a period of merely six months. Many of these are hard liquor bars given a facelift in a last-ditch attempt to salvage the bar business, with little success. Even after a hike of 70 percent in beer sales, monetary gains have been meagre for bar owners. Quite a few are pondering the possibility of not renewing their licenses once they lapse.

Of the three major areas of revenue for the government in Kerala, liquor trade and tourism are paramount. Both are interconnected, with the apex court spelling out the exemption granted to five star bars as imperative to sustain the influx of tourists. Nevertheless, the hospitality sector is bound to take a hit at the close down of affordable alcohol counters. Foreign tour operators have already called for cancellations pertaining more to the lack of freedom than easy boozing options.

The bar hotel industry directly employs 25,000 persons and has had a business of Rs 1,500 crore.In 2013, the industry had contributed Rs 2300 crore to the state exchequer as license fee, excise duty and sales tax.The workers in the sector are faced with an imminent ouster, following the bar ban. This in turn worsens the crisis of joblessness ever-present in Kerala.

Beyond all these, the major drawback of the prohibition plan, which raises suspicions, is the reluctance of the government to order closure of its own state-run alcohol retail outlets. Additionally, traditional liquor or ‘toddy’ has not been included under the purview of prohibition, which defeats the purpose of the exercise in rural Kerala. The administration, aloft the high moral ground, appears frivolous in its attempt to curb private bar business while monopolizing retail alcohol sale for the next ten years. Had it been serious in its attempt to free Kerala from the wet spell, it would have begun the charity at home to set an example.

Without the requisite alternate employment options in place, poor manpower to handle the crisis and an inefficient paradigm to check adulteration, the liquor ban raises more questions than answers. We can only wait with baited breath for a shortening of queues at Bevco outlets over the next decade to gauge its success.

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