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Prohibition returns in TN's election season but it won't be easy to do

By R Ramasubramanian
April 14, 2016 14:29 IST
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‘Both the AIADMK and DMK are promising prohibition, but where is the road map? Jayalalithaa is not giving a blueprint for her phased prohibition and Karunanidhi is not talking about a draft bill for the same. This is nothing but empty election rhetoric.’

R Ramasubramanian reports from Chennai.

All the political parties in Tamil Nadu are speaking in one loud voice against prohibition today. In the run-up to the assembly elections, due in the state on May 16, wiping out liquor has become the buzzword for all political parties. While the principle opposition, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, maintains that it will bring in a law to ensure prohibition, the ruling All India Anna DMK general secretary and Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa has assured that she will implement prohibition in a phased manner if voted back to power. The rest of the Opposition too has promised full-fledged prohibition if elected.

The clamour for prohibition picked up momentum after the suicide of 59-year-old Gandhian, Sasiperumal, last July. Sasiperumal, who was fighting for prohibition throughout his life, climbed a cell phone tower near Kanyakumari district and jumped to his death. The sad development gave an immediate fillip to the prohibition demand and the state witnessed street protests and students rampaging liquor shops for a few weeks. 

The momentum picked up again after April 9. While launching her election campaign in Chennai on that day, Jayalalithaa spoke on prohibition for the first time. She said every party, especially the DMK, was demanding prohibition. “Anyone can talk about prohibition, but certainly not the DMK. It was the DMK which was in power in 1971 when prohibition was lifted. But prohibition cannot be implemented in one go. After we are voted back to power in the state we will introduce prohibition in a phased manner,” she announced. 

In fact, this announcement had become Jayalalithaa’s favourite issue in subsequent election rallies. On April 10 the DMK in its election manifesto promised a law to implement prohibition in the state but was silent on the modality, which is whether it will be implemented in one go or in a phased manner. 

The state has a long history of dilly-dallying with prohibition. Way back in 1937, while in power in Salem municipality, C Rajagopalachari introduced prohibition in his district which was later expanded throughout the state. In 1971 Chief Minister M Karunanidhi lifted prohibition, but re-introduced it in 1974. In 1981, prohibition was again lifted and ever since liquor sales have only moved upward in the state.

Chief Minister M G Ramachandran not only opened up the Indian Made Foreign Liquor or IMFL retail sector but also introduced toddy and arrack shops. He shut down the toddy and arrack outlets in 1987 but opened two government-run liquor companies, the Tamil Nadu Spirit Corporation, and in 1983 the Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation or Tasmac was created for procuring and selling of liquor.   

In its two-year tenure from 1989-91, the DMK government headed by Karunanidhi introduced cheap liquor for Rs 2 which was supplied in sachets.  Jayalalithaa, after assuming office for the first time in June 1991, abolished liquor in sachets. It was in her second tenure, in 2003, that the Tamil Nadu government completely took over retail sales of liquor and Tasmac became the custodian of liquor. Tasmac earns revenue not only by selling alcohol but also from granting bar licences. Its revenue for 2014-15 stood at Rs 26,188 crores, which is expected to touch Rs 27,000 crores for 2015-16. This is almost one-fourth of the state’s total revenues. In fact, Tasmac registered a 20 per year on year revenue growth for the past 12 years. The state today has 6,800 retail liquor outlets, and Tasmac has over 30,000 employees.

It is against this background that the clarion call for prohibition has to be seen and understood. While political parties are clamouring for prohibition, health experts warn of the bumpy road ahead. To implement full-fledged prohibition the state has to invest thousands of crores in health infrastructure, a theory that got further strengthened by a recent survey. According to the latest National Family Health Survey, nearly 47 pc of the men in Tamil Nadu consume alcohol. “Though not all of them are alcoholics, surely a few lakhs will be addicts. Now to handle them in the post-prohibition period, the government should establish an adequate number of quality de-addiction centres and employ trained, qualified medical and paramedical professionals. For this several hundreds of crores have to be invested because rehabilitation centres have to be established across the state. Otherwise there will be several deaths,” warns a senior physician handling de-addiction patients in a government hospital in Chennai. 

Moreover, the prevailing opinion among experienced medical professionals is that prohibition won’t be successful. “Liquor and prohibition are problems existing from time immemorial. Alcoholism is surely a problem, but prohibition is not the solution. For addicts you can advocate abstinence but certainly not for everyone. What the government should do is one, minimise the number of shops drastically; two, cut short the working hours of liquor shops; three, ensure the quality of alcohol content; and four, launch massive awareness campaigns about the ill-effects of alcohol. By all this you can handle the situation in a better way than prohibition which has failed all over the world,” says Dr K Senthilvelan, a qualified clinical psychiatrist from Karur district in TN. 

The psychological aspects of the whole issue also needs to be understood in the right perspective, he adds. “The issue of prohibition has to be understood from the angle of human psychology which is basically inquisitive in nature and always tempted into attempting more tasty things in life, always edging towards the bad rather than good.”

Observers feel that although there are loud voices for prohibition, there is no clear road map. “Both the AIADMK and DMK are promising prohibition, but where is the road map? Jayalalithaa is not giving a blueprint for her phased prohibition and Karunanidhi is not talking about a draft bill which has to be done if he wants to introduce a law for the same. So both of them don’t have a blueprint for prohibition, this is nothing but empty election rhetoric” says M G Deivasahayam, retired chief secretary of Haryana.   

Another angle to the whole issue is the fate of the 30,000-plus Tasmac employees. “We support prohibition because we too have concerns about society’s health. But there are 30,000-plus employees employed in Tasmac, what alternative are you going to provide to us? After working for all these years you can’t throw us on the streets. The government should make alternative arrangements for our future, but there are no clear words from either the DMK or AIADMK,” laments K Thiruselvan, secretary of the Tasmac employees’ union affiliated with the CITU. 

Now comes the most important angle to the issue, which is implementation. Even if the state goes dry, whether at one go or in a staggered manner, how will it succeed is a million-dollar question because none of the adjoining states have prohibition. “If prohibition is introduced, it is going to be a nightmare situation for the police because they will be in the first ring of the fire. Neighbouring states like Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka don’t have prohibition. In Kerala only 10 pc of the shops will be shut once a year. Then you have Puducherry which has had a robust liquor culture for ages. So all hell will break loose,” warns a retired state director general of police who did not want to be named.    

But political parties are least bothered about these ground realities, and their shrill voices in favour of prohibition continue to reach a crescendo each passing day. 

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R Ramasubramanian in Chennai
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