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Nudged by Church, a poll gamble against the bottle in booziest state

Kerala votes on Thursday but the serpentine queues are already in place.

No, not outside polling booths, but in front of outlets of the Beverages Corporation, the state-run Indian made foreign liquor retailer.

What has brought the people out on the streets is the Congress-led United Democratic Front government’s decision not to renew the licences of 418 bars across the state for “failing to maintain minimum quality standards” and to cancel the permits of 14 that are caught in legal wrangles.

That leaves Kerala —known as India’s “booziest state” — with only 321 bars to serve its huge army of tipplers, possibly the largest in the country.

If habitual tipplers are left high and dry, won’t it cost the alliance votes? Maybe or maybe not, thanks to a circular issued by the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council and read in churches on March 9.

The circular listed desirable qualities for candidates and called upon the people to choose those who fulfil the criteria. At number 7 is the will to act against rising alcoholism.

In a way, the move against renewing bar licences was the state’s attempt to reach out to the Church. The extent to which it will impact votes will be known only when EVMs are unsealed, but initial reactions have stirred hope in the ruling camp.

The bishops’ council has welcomed the move and termed it the first step towards total prohibition. A media release issued by its spokesperson, Stephen Alathara, said the government should not succumb to pressure to renew the licences of the 418 bars even if they improve standards in the future.

The archbishop of the Latin Catholic Church, Soosapakiyam, termed it a bold move and patted the state Congress chief, V.M. Sudheeran, for taking a stand. He, too, hoped the licences would not be renewed.

The issue of renewal of the licences — the expiry date was March 31 — had come up in a state cabinet meet on March 26. The excise department had suggested that temporary licences be issued but a decision was put off for lack of consensus and doubts over Election Commission clearance.

Even after the poll panel cleared the move, Sudheeran opposed it in view of the elections. The April 2 cabinet meet took note of this and decided to permit only 321 bars to reopen.

Bar hotel owners have protested the move alleging the classification was unscientific and that it would affect the lives of thousands who depend on them for their daily bread.

“The classification is based on a 2007 report of the then excise commissioner. But it is the tourism department which certifies hotels, not the excise department,” said D. Rajkumar, the president of the Kerala Bar Hotels Association.

“Prior to 1982, bar licences were allotted to hotels that had minimum four rooms and a restaurant. In 1982, the requirement was raised to 10 rooms — two-star standard. In 2010, this was again revised and it was decided that fresh licences would only be given to three-star hotels,” said Rajkumar.

“In the meanwhile, the government in 2004 instructed all bar hotels to upgrade to minimum two-star standard, but many opposed this saying that they had land limitations. Also during this period, some three-star hotels that were refused licences went to court claiming they were being denied permission but below-par ones had got away.”

All the confusion has left the people feeling short-changed. Many in the winding queues outside the 338 Bevco outlets had to return “broken-hearted” as stocks ran out. “Now I don’t have any doubt. The Oommen Chandy government will be defeated in this election,” a man said in disgust.

Unconfirmed reports spoke of increased “snake sightings” after the bars shut down — a mocking reference to sloshed men lying in dark corners or by the roadside.

“It’s mostly bars frequented by the economically weaker sections like casual labourers and drivers that have been closed. They can’t buy liquor and go home to drink. So what they do is drink in dark corners, inside auto-rickshaws or other vehicles, only to end up sloshed by the roadside,” said a beverage enthusiast.

The move has brought a windfall in excise revenue with Bevco outlets reporting a spurt in sales. Sources said the average daily sale had risen from Rs 18 crore to Rs 28.18 crore.

Besides Bevco, the Kerala State Co-operative Consumer Federation Ltd (Consumerfed) operates 46 outlets selling IMFL and three beer parlours. These have also seen brisk sales since April 1 when the government decision came into effect.

Official sources said the action against the bars was temporary and they would be allowed to resume operations post-election. If that does happen, it would have less to do with the tipplers and more with Kerala’s coffers.

In 2013-2014, the revenue from liquor sales was Rs 9,350 crore, an increase of Rs 509 crore over the 2012-13 figure of Rs 8,841 crore. Excise department figures show there were more takers for brandy in 2013-14, unlike in the past when Kerala preferred rum.

According to government figures, Kerala has the highest per capita consumption of liquor. In 2011, it accounted for 16 per cent of all alcohol sales in India.

The paradox of high social indicators and even higher liquor consumption rates in Kerala has often perplexed social scientists. In response to calls to check the menace, the state raised the drinking age from 18 to 21 last year and appointed a one-man panel to suggest ways to curb availability of liquor.

But that seems to have had little impact. In January this year, an eight-year-old boy in Kollam district died after having liquor from a bottle he found in a cupboard at home. The boy had apparently seen his father and his friends drink at home and been curious to try it out.

A software developer has even launched an app called “Kuppi” (bottle), which lists the price of foreign liquor on sale at Bevco outlets and provides information on what one can buy with a certain budget. It lists the dry days in the state and helps search out the nearest Bevco outlet.

• Kerala votes on April 10