“She definitely won’t close the Tasmacs in the city,” says Murali, swaying slightly and squinting in the harsh Chennai sun. “At least I hope she won’t; I’ll have to go find work in Pondi then,” grins the 26-year-old, his breath reeking of cheap liquor.
An unskilled labourer hailing from the deep south of Tamil Nadu, Murali began drinking to unwind after back-breaking physical work. His story echoes that of the multitude ‘quarter addicts’ – alcoholics who are able to feed their habit courtesy of 6,800 government-operated Tasmac outlets across the state.
The “she” Murali refers to is AIADMK leader and Tamil Nadu chief minister, J Jayalalithaa.
A ban on the sale of liquor became one of the defining points of this year’s assembly elections, with all political parties promising to implement it.
“Prohibition will be enforced in a phased manner, which will eventually lead to complete prohibition,” Jayalalithaa had announced as she officially started the final phase of her campaign on April 9.
And she appears serious. Among her first acts as the re-elected chief minister was the closure of 500 Tasmac shops on Monday. She further cut short working hours, opening the outlet at 12 noon instead of 10am.
A state of prohibition
Though prohibition became a touchstone these elections, the issue has a much longer and sordid history in the state.
Back in 1937 when there was no Tamil Nadu, but only the erstwhile Madras Presidency, prohibition was imposed in Salem district under Rajagopalachari’s tenure as a matter of a moral imperative. This was soon extended to the entire state.
In 1971, the DMK lifted the ban but reinstated it three years later after several people died from consuming spurious liquor.
The potential revenue, however, made AIADMK founder MG Ramachandran rethink the state’s policy. There needed to be a mechanism in place to ensure that neither spurious liquor nor dangerous home-made alcohol reached consumers. Thus was born the Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation, more popularly known as Tasmac.
The corporation was only meant to distribute alcohol made by its counterpart, the Tamil Nadu Spirit Corporation (Tasco). However, Tasco was superseded by the Tasmac on Jayalalithaa’s orders.
The state nevertheless continued to struggle with the issue of spurious liquor, and the culture of drinking that Tasmacs had bred. In 2001, more than 100 people died in three cases of drinking home-made moonshine that had lethal amounts of methanol.
The then CM, O Panneerselvam, announced that the AIADMK government had decided to introduce cheaper liquor in the Tasmacs as a matter of public health. “As IMFL (Indian Made Foreign Liquor) is beyond the reach of the poor, they drink spurious liquor. So the government has decided to introduce cheap liquor,” he said in 2002.
The state’s revenue, estimated to be Rs 1,42,681 crores in the last budget, derives 30% from the sale of liquor. According to government data, the last five years has seen a turnover of roughly Rs 25,000 crores per annum. Last year alone saw Tasmac outlets rake in Rs 26,188 crores, with an estimated 70 lakh worth of people visiting them daily.
This immense profit leads some to believe that no government will be willing to shut down these cash cows, especially in a state like Tamil Nadu which is currently facing a deficit of Rs 9,154 crores.
“It’s true that the state immensely profits from the sale of liquor,” said Satta Panchayat Iyakkam (SPI) president, Siva Elango. A non-governmental organisation that has been one of the strongest crusaders for prohibition, the SPI was one of many groups that agitated for a change in the state’s liquor policy prior to the elections.
“Closing a few hundred Tasmacs here and there is not going to solve anything,” he said. “You need rehabilitation centres. We all saw what happened in Bihar after Nitish Kumar imposed prohibition without creating a safety net for the addicts.”
“If Jayalalithaa is serious about combating alcoholism, she needs to make concrete changes to the state’s liquor policy – immediately.”
Elango’s doubts over the chief minister’s seriousness are understandable, given that these outlets have become a heady cocktail of political connections, bureaucratic management, and sheer profit.
Because the state controls the liquor licenses, only a short list of pre-approved breweries can manufacture supplies for Tasmac stocks. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most profitable ones all have political connections.
For instance, Midas Golden Breweries, which is supposedly well-connected, sold 112.9 lakh cases worth Rs 5404.88 crore last year.
And it isn’t just shareholders benefitting from the scale of operations; people running the outlets are a happy lot.
Velathur, a former construction worker from Kovilpattu, quit his job to work at a Tasmac outlet because of the benefits involved from being a government employee. He earns about Rs 500-600 a day.
“Jayalalithaa may shut down all of the wine shops in rural Tamil Nadu. But not those of us in the city; we make far too much profit,” said Velathur who works in one of the larger Tasmac outlets.
Shankaran, who works at one near Anna Salai in the heart of Chennai, agreed. “We make about Rs 1 lakh per day,” he said. “Who will get rid of a profit like that?”
Besides, Velathur added, there are too many ways for people to get liquor in urban areas for prohibition to effectively work.
“How much can one person control?”
That indeed is the question.