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Has Pinrayi Vijayan’s Left government in Kerala used tourism as an excuse to re-open bars?

Many are calling the revised liquor policy a watershed moment for the one-year-old Vijayan government because this is undoubtedly a sensitive decision which many would have shied away from taking.

india Updated: Jun 14, 2017 10:51 IST
Naveen Nair
Naveen Nair
GRIST Media, Thiruvananthapuram
Kerala govt,Liquor sale,LDF govt
Serpentine queues outside liquor outlets in Kerala.(GRIST Media)

Desperate times call for desperate measures, goes the popular expression. But are these indeed desperate times? According to the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government in Kerala at least, that dramatically altered the state’s liquor policy last week, it is.

The new policy states that all hotels with a classification of three stars and above can now go back to running a full-fledged bar and start serving hard liquor, earlier restricted by the previous Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) government’s order. Hotels below three stars will still have a license to run wine and beer parlours and a majority of the 712-odd bars closed during the UDF’s rule would now be opened subject to the Supreme Court’s 500-metre liquor ban on pubs, bars and restaurants on highways.

In effect, the Communist Party of India(Marxist)-led government in Kerala has torn down the former government’s policy of phased prohibition and rubbished it by calling it ‘impractical’ for the state.

“We completely understand and respect the sentiments of the people who stand for prohibition. But it is an impractical solution in a place like Kerala. So, the government has this strong conviction that the policy needs to be changed in lines with the realities before us,’’ chief minister Pinrayi Vijayan told the media in Thiruvananthapuram on Thursday.

Read | To drink or not to drink? Kerala high court says boozing not a fundamental right

What is this conviction? The present policy document clearly outlines two important reasons. The primary claim is that the tourism sector had suffered terribly in the last two years after the shutdown of bars. And secondly, that the widespread proliferation of drugs and narcotic substances in the state over the last two years could be directly attributed to the unavailability of liquor. Both the reasons seem to have finally pushed the government to go with the lesser evil.

Excise officers raid a small-time eatery for drugs after a tip-off in Kochi. (GRIST Media)

Many are calling it a watershed moment for the Vijayan government that has just completed a year in power, because this is undoubtedly a decision which many would have shied away from taking, given how sensitive it is.

But what does not add up to the government’s argument is the revenue generated from the tourism sector in the last few years.

Tourism just an excuse?

According to the latest figures available on the Kerala Tourism website, the total revenue earned in the financial year of 2016 stands at Rs 29,658 crore, which shows a good 11.2 percent increase compared to the previous year’s figure of Rs 26,689 crore.

That this happened at a time when prohibition was taking effect only shows that the government’s claim that liquor ban is killing the tourism sector is actually baseless. A further look into the revenue starting from 2013 — when the old liquor policy was being drafted by the UDF government — still shows a steady progress, by more than Rs 1,500 crores annually with the foreign exchange earnings too showing a corresponding increase. (See table 1 & 2 )

The government has also claimed that the number of foreign tourist visits had reduced since the prohibition came into force. This is again proved false by the government’s own figures. While more than 9.7 lakh foreigners came to visit the state in 2015, the numbers swelled to 10.3 lakh in 2016 — a rise of 6.23%. In the same period, the domestic tourist intake also increased by 5.67%. (See table 3).

The increase in percentage may have dropped over the years, but tourist arrivals have always been higher than the previous year and so has the revenue. Calling the government’s bluff, the Congress says that the LDF has sold itself to bar owners with whom they allege the government has done a behind-the-curtain deal.

“We have strong reasons to believe that there is corruption behind this new policy. The government’s illicit relation with the liquor mafia is what has resulted in this new liquor regime. It has let down the people,’’ MM Hassan, president of the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC), said.

Activists are also not ruling out such a possibility. “Although we can’t prove it at the moment, there is a clear possibility of this happening. See, political parties in Kerala have always colluded with bar owners because they are the primary funders. The CPI(M) especially has a strong history,’’ activist NM Pearson said.

Perhaps, one claim of the government that sticks is regarding the MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, Conventions, Exhibitions & Events) sector. The figures show that while more than 4% has been the annual growth in 2014, it had dropped to a dismal 0.6% in 2015-16.

This means that Kerala as a destination for ‘event-based tourism’ has taken a severe beating. And with the SC asking all bars to be moved 500 meters away from the National Highway, it has made things worse.

An ariel shot of Kovalam, Kerala’s tourism epicentre, taken from the lighthouse. (GRIST Media)

With only five-star bars allowed to serve liquor as per the previous policy, and almost all of Kerala’s five-star hotels being too close to the highways, shutting shop became the only solution. With no alcohol in five-star hotels and resorts, big corporate clients started cancelling their events.

International tour operators who had been bringing such clients to Kerala every year say they are much relieved by the government’s change of heart.

“From this year, we had re-routed all our outbound enquiries to places like Sri Lanka because the moment people know there is no liquor they will ask us to cancel the reservation. Now finally some sense has prevailed,’’ Jijo Madhavapallil, who runs Ashin City Tours & Travels in London, said over the phone.

But the MICE sector contributes to hardly 10 percent of the revenue and surely the government cannot harp on it to justify the prohibition’s reversal.

“Here the problem is when the government finds ridiculous reasons to explain their stand. Most of us were expecting such a policy as we knew the LDF’s stand. But where the government is losing its credibility is when it uses wrong information to justify its stand. That’s when we suspect that something is amiss,’’ Johnson J Edayaranmula, director of Thiruvananthapuram-based NGO Alcohol & Drug Information Centre, said.

But tourism department officials say the effect of the prohibition, had it continued, would’ve been felt only in five to six years from now and would have been quite disastrous for the state as an international tourist destination. Many say that the even the temporary setback of demonetisation pales in front of the unavailability of liquor.

“There is no comparison between demonetisation and the liquor rollback. Demonetisation was a temporary setback. But by taking out liquor, you’re doing a huge damage to the brand — it’s a long-term effect. It’s such a big relief that this corrective step has been taken. Now let’s see how things play out from next season, then we will see the difference,’’ Dr V Venu, the principal secretary of Kerala Tourism, said.

Curbing drugs and spurious liquor menace

If the government is on a sticky wicket as far as the tourism argument is concerned then there is a larger and pressing issue that could bail them out of it. The void created by the unavailability of alcohol over the last two years has been taken over by a so-called ‘bigger evil’.

If the numbers of the State Excise and Prohibition Department, involved in anti-narcotic measures in Kerala is to be believed, the cases under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act has increased almost five times over the last two years.

Narcotic substances retrieved from a labour camp in Kochi. (GRIST Media)

From 847 NDPS cases in 2013-14, just before the prohibition came into effect, the figure (confirmed by the State Excise Commissioner) stands at a whopping 3,835 in 2016-17. Top officials now say that Goa is slowly falling behind Kochi as the drug capital of the south. In the last six months, more than a lakh kilogramme of narcotic substances have been caught from Kochi alone. Never has the city taken such a bad hit.

“It is a reality we are encountering every day. On the ground, our officers have seen how easily drugs have become available. It is because the demand had shot up dramatically after liquor went out. Look at the crime rate in the last one year. It has only shot up compared to previous years,’’ Rishi Raj Singh, state excise commissioner, said.

But it’s not just drugs. Cases relating to spurious liquor has also increased in the last couple of years. From 12,904 cases registered under the Kerala Abkari Act in 2013-14 for smuggling and use of various spurious elements like illicit liquor, spirit, arrack and toddy, the numbers have shot up to 25,332 in 2016-17.

Renowned psychologist KS David said this was indeed bound to happen in a state like Kerala. “Why do you think prohibition has failed everywhere in the world. You decrease the availability of liquor in a place like Kerala, where there is hardly any inhibition about taking it, people are surely going to search for alternative means. In that sense, you have to work for reducing its demand and not availability, which will drive people mad,’’ David said.

The Left front has made it very clear that it would not want to Kerala to go back to its ‘hooch tragedy days’ of the 90s, where in over two decades more than 200 people had perished to spurious liquor. No wonder the state feels that if making good alcohol available is the best way to counter it, then so be it.

Church revolts

Meanwhile, the church in Kerala cutting across various denominations has called the government’s new policy as ‘an open challenge to the people’ of the state. In Kerala for years, the church has been at forefront demanding total prohibition and it says the LDF has cheated on the mandate by bringing out such an anti-people policy that would ruin the state.

“Before the elections, the government had promised to bring down the availability. But how do you explain that stand with such a policy? Also when you know that alcohol is a social evil, how can any responsible government support and justify its availability merely on economic grounds?’’ Father Jimmy Poochakatt, the spokesperson of the Syro Malabar Church, the largest denomination of Christians in the state, asked.

In the days to come, the church will certainly be on the warpath.

“The government has let down the people of the state. We will oppose it and try our best not to let the government implement it,’’ a fuming archbishop M Soosa Pakiam of the Latin Catholic Church told the media.

But the church isn’t shy about asking what it wants; its own share of liquor. Pakiam, who is also the president of the Kerala Catholic Bishops Council (KCBC), sought a whopping 900% enhancement of wine production under his archdiocese. Clearly a case of ‘let them have wine’ if not hard alcohol.

In all of this, the only silver lining for the Kerala government is its decision to raise the minimum drinking age in the state from 21 to 23.

(Published in arrangement with GRIST Media)

First Published: Jun 14, 2017 10:25 IST