By Sakhi Nair
Edited by Anandita Malhotra, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist
Being the biggest consumer of alcohol in India, Kerala has been trying to battle alcoholism for years. In spite of implementation of various measures to reduce consumption of liquor, the welfare state continues to drown in a cocktail of liquor from both state-run shops and cheap, illicit locally brewed liquor. Prohibition, though enforced with the right intention, has backfired.
With an average consumption of 8.5 litres per person per year, which is more than twice of the national average, Kerala is pretty much a sloshed state. The state gets 20% of its revenue from sale of alcohol. Growing concerns about health problems, road accidents, divorce and domestic violence have been attributed to drug and alcohol consumption and addiction, even after several efforts by the government at planning prohibition. Several bars have been closed, the first day of every month and Sundays have been declared dry days and liquor can only be sold through government-run liquor shops. The Kerala government holds a monopoly over alcohol with almost 400 licensed stores. However, those who drink will continue to do so no matter what. Reducing the number of sellers has in no way hindered consumption, with tipplers queuing up outside shops for hours just for a bottle or two, where potent drinks like whisky, rum and brandy are the poisons of choice. Besides this liquor, a high amount of cheap toddy sold in small shops is also consumed.
Recognizing these problems, the Chief Minister of Kerala, Oommen Chandy called the last orders, announcing his plan for total prohibition across the state. With support from Christian churches, the government is aiming to make Kerala completely dry by 2024. While debates were going on about reopening 418 previously shut bars, Chandy dropped the bomb and announced that in addition to those, the remaining 294 will be shut as well, with only 20 odd five-star hotels retaining their licenses. Additionally, even state-run liquor shops will be shut at the rate of 10% per year, and the target might be achieved in 10 years time. This is a drastic step for a state whose revenue relies heavily on its tourism industry, as prohibition will put tourists off. Furthermore, the already cash-strapped government will have to refund crores of rupees it acquired from bar license fees, along with losing the major contributor to its economy.
Prohibition is an extreme step, which has almost never been successful. Prohibition in the US in the 20th century was called off after the Great Depression when the government realized the significant contribution the sale of liquor made to the total revenue. For an example closer to home, the total prohibition in Gujarat has been called a ‘farce’, as the rich smuggle their liquor from neighbouring states, while the poor resort to bootlegged hooch, which is laced with toxic chemicals and severely adulterated, leading to widespread diseases and even death. States like Delhi, Goa and Daman where liquor is sold at cheap rates don’t face the same problems, and their consumption is not as high either. Prohibition has also led to several other problems like corruption among officials and organized crime, lining the pockets of bootleggers who provide illicit and unsafe booze.
There is a need for implementation of rational policies to reduce consumption of alcohol, those which have minimal withdrawal symptoms. Total prohibition and the government’s penny wise and pound-foolish approach are not the solutions, being imprudent decisions at best. It is imperative that the people of Kerala realize this hypocrisy and demand judicious policies and not half-baked decisions. Moderation is crucial, but not at the cost of individual freedom. We are not living under an authoritarian regime where the state can dictate every action without realizing how consequential their illogical their policies can be.
Sakhi is a 12th grade student planning to pursue Mass Communication. She is a keen observer of everything that her eyes can see and never leaves herself out of a stimulating conversation. She considers the freedom of expression to be the fourth necessity of life and believes the world could be a better place if we could just listen. Her interests include photography, music and satire. You can wade through her musings at http://www.neuroticpeanuts.blogspot.com.