By Ashwath Komath
Edited by Nandita Singh, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist
The ban on alcohol in Kerala has come under a lot of scrutiny lately. For a state that has a high consumption of alcohol, this was seen as rather unusual. There are several reasons for this –
First of all, as mentioned, Kerala has a very high consumption rate of alcohol. Secondly, with few sources of income, one of which being tourism, the question arose of how it would impact tourism in the state if alcohol was banned. Thirdly, since the state government imposes tax on alcoholic beverages, how much money was the state of Kerala going to lose over the ban.
Critics of the policy argue that the policy is rather useless.
To begin with, prohibition will not lead to the stoppage of consumption of alcohol. This was seen in Gujarat where alcohol is either smuggled in, or it is consumed at the borders of Gujarat. If anything, this will lead to a lot of illicit liquor being produced and alcohol being smuggled in. The only consequence would be the rise in price, and the government doesn’t get a dime out of it in taxes.
Secondly, it will drive the tourists away to other locations, which don’t have prohibition. This is true for tourists all across the world. So, they would rather flock to places like Goa, Gokarna or other places, which may approximately offer the same experience of Kerala, but also offer alcohol. It is rather unfair to impose prohibition on tourists and expect only teetotalers to come to Kerala. That is unrealistic wishful thinking and it will have an adverse impact on the tourism sector. The government however, has allowed only five-star hotels to serve alcohol. This is discriminatory as it implies that only the rich should be entitled to alcohol, which is a reasonable inference to draw since five-star hotels sell alcohol at rates much higher than retail prices.
Thirdly, given the kind of consumption of alcohol in Kerala, the state government will lose out on a large chunk of taxes, which it could have imposed on the people who drink. So apart from the sales tax on the sale of alcohol, the government will also be losing out on taxes imposed on establishments such as bars and liquor stores. In fact, state-run liquor stores, which had the monopoly of selling Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL), were the most profitable public sector enterprise in Kerala. This is something the government is going to lose out on.
Relatedly, the government would also be responsible for the shuttering of several private bars, which cannot sell alcohol any longer, thus throwing all their investments out the window. Alcohol licenses are an expensive and a highly bureaucratic procedure, and the bar-owners will be most affected with this policy.
All this being said, we must also explore the reasons behind this decision.
Kerala as a state suffers from rampant domestic abuse. Women are at the receiving end of some of the worst instances of violence at the hands of the males in their families; be it their husbands, brothers or fathers. A large part of this violence is fuelled by, if not attributed to, the emotion-heightening affects of alcohol. It is a very familiar sight to see long organised queues in front of the liquor stores every evening in Kerala.
Thus, the women of Kerala, that are repeated victims of domestic abuse, welcome the ban on the consumption of alcohol. Men use up the money earned in the household to purchase all and any forms of alcohol, including IMFL, toddy etc. The idea behind the ban is that it would hopefully reduce alcohol-induced domestic violence. However, I do not think it is fair to rely merely on the implementation of prohibition to end this problem, when clearly there is a need to address the deep patriarchy that lies at the root of it all.
Support has also come from the Christian and Muslim community leaders. Their concerns also arise from the prevailing social problems created by the consumption of alcohol, along with religious concerns.
A lot of people have suggested that the government increase the taxes on alcohol and make it expensive rather than ban it altogether. While it may sound logical on the face of it, ground realities actually make the problem worse.
One thing that needs to be understood about rampant alcohol consumption is that even if it was taxed higher and the alcohol was expensive, people would still resort to buying alcohol, as it is a product associated with dependency and habit formation. For many, alcohol becomes a basic necessity that they will forgo other household requirements to acquire. This will not stem the consumption of alcohol significantly enough to make a difference, and it will only serve to deplete the available resources of the family. Alcoholism needs to be treated as a psychological as well as a social problem.
Another issue of concern is the illicit alcohol problem. People will brew their own alcohol, sometimes it may even be fatal because as the name suggests, it will be made without regulations or control. So we can probably expect a larger number of illnesses and deaths attributed to illicit alcohol in the future.
However, the actual consequences of this policy can only be studied once the policy has been implemented for a few years, and enough data is gathered to observe the changing patterns. Only then will we able to deduce what the implications of this policy are.
Ashwath is a graduate in Political Science from Fergusson College, Pune. He is an aspiring diplomat and hopes to join the Indian Foreign Service someday. He enjoys writing about foreign policy, international security and international affairs. When he is not writing or reading, he enjoys playing pool with his friends, watching foreign cinema and listening to instrumental music.