Chandy Is Worried -- Prohibition Could Open Hooch Tap

Bindu Gopinath

Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, who ordered the closure of bars in Kerala, said he is worried about the possibility of a surge in illicit liquor trade, as authorities work toward total prohibition in a state grappling with rampant alcoholism. 

“We haven’t had the problem of illicit liquor so far, because we haven’t yet completely banned alcohol,” Chandy said in an interview to *Stance* at his residence in Thiruvananthapuram. “I don’t think the present calm is permanent. I do have concerns about what will happen when complete prohibition takes place.” 

More than a year ago, Chandy’s government asked 730 bars to shut down while restricting liquor sales through state-owned retail shops and five-star hotels after alcohol consumption in Kerala reached alarming proportions. The government also aims to wind up the sales outlets over the next 10 years to achieve total prohibition. The Supreme Court recently upheld Chandy’s liquor policy, giving a boost to his Congress party that faces elections in the next three months. 

Chandy, 72, said authorities are stepping up vigil to prevent bootlegging, especially during festivals.The government will also increase campaigns to discourage drinking, though liquor consumption has come down since the new policy was adopted, he said. 

The move to curb alcohol use will be the plank for Congress in Kerala in the upcoming elections after the party had suffered setbacks in recent local body polls, with opposition Communists and Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party making some significant gains.  

The decision to close the bars triggered bribery allegations, causing veteran politician K.M. Mani to resign as the state’s finance minister in November. Beside the annual revenue loss of about 70 billion rupees to a state contending with a fiscal shortfall, the closure of bars has raised questions about the livelihood of thousands of employees who have lost their jobs. 

“I don’t really care about the revenue loss,’’ Chandy, who started his second term as chief minister in 2011, said. “I agree that it is a big amount for a state like Kerala. But we lose twice or thrice the 70 billion rupees we earn on account of health issues, road accidents from drunken driving etc. And then, we have massive social issues caused by alcoholism.” 

The government is committed to compensating the bar employees who have lost jobs, the chief minister said. 

“When we take a step aimed at the society’s larger interest, we need to ensure that people don’t lose their livelihood,” Chandy said. “I have absolute sympathy with the people who have lost their jobs. We haven’t been able to provide them compensation yet, but we must.”