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Kerala govt’s prohibition will drive liquor trade underground

comment Updated: Aug 24, 2014 22:09 IST
Hindustan Times
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In an effort to outdo VM Sudheeran, his rival and state Congress president who was calling for the closure of “sub-standard” bars and hotels, Kerala chief minister Oommen Chandy announced that the state will move towards total prohibition within a decade. Hundreds of bars will close by next April and outlets selling Indian-made foreign liquor will be scaled back by 10% each year to make the state liquor-free in a few years. This move first reeks of hypocrisy as politicians grant liquor licences freely to begin with, allowing the trade to flourish when it suits them and then try and clamp down after demand soars. Mr Chandy has made a curious exception and allowed five-star hotels to continue serving liquor, as if to suggest that the rich are by their very nature more responsible drinkers and the lesser worthies aren’t.

There is no denying that alcoholism is a serious problem in Kerala. A state fondly proclaimed as ‘God’s own country’ for its natural beauty is also sometimes referred to as India’s “booziest state” for consuming 8.3 litres of alcohol per person each year. Alcohol consumption has been linked to crime, road accidents, violence against women and rising health costs. Without meaning to extol the virtues of alcohol, one can safely say that total prohibition is no way to think through this complex problem. Mr Chandy must know from experiences elsewhere that prohibition rarely works in practice. It does not contain demand and instead encourages illegality, eventually corrupting state structures by strengthening links between criminals, police and politicians.

The move has significant revenue implications which the state cannot afford. Prohibition will also hurt Kerala’s reputation as a tourist destination, which is crucial for the state’s finances. More than 10 million tourists arrived in Kerala during 2013-14 — of which one million were foreigners — which helped the state earn around Rs 24,000 crore. Mr Chandy clearly seems to have no idea as to what he has got himself into. Those fond of a drop in the state are certainly not going to raise a toast to him.