The Kerala government has recently brought out the Kerala Abkari Policy 2023-24 which stresses the importance of promoting the liquor industry in the context of the state’s tourism. A plain reading of the provisions in the policy shows that the government is all for promoting the liquor industry with the introduction of numerous licenses focusing on tourists and creating employment opportunities. However, there are certain sticky points as well.
The policy proposes to brand toddy, the country liquor of Kerala, as “Kerala toddy”. Hotels and resorts with three stars or higher will be permitted to serve “Kerala toddy” to their tourist customers. In the foreign liquor sector, Kerala has 384 FL 1 shops (BEVCO), 721 FL3 license (bar license provided for 3 star and above hotels), 295 FL 11 (beer and wine parlour licenses) and 44 FL 4A club licenses. The new policy aims to increase the state’s foreign liquor and beer production by reopening defunct breweries and adding capacity to existing ones. The government will grant more foreign liquor retail licences. The state will be granting pub licences to IT and industrial parks in the near future as well.
The policy aims to specifically attract more youth into the toddy tapping and retail businesses, ensuring job opportunities. Employment generation and newer avenues in the liquor industry for youth being one of the key objectives of the new policy, it is pertinent to understand the legal barriers in the existing rules for women to work in the bar licensed establishments.
A recent Hindu report highlights the lucrativeness of bartending as a career and the changing drinking culture in the country. There are many women who are professionally trained in bartending and the mixology of drinks and work as freelancers and bartenders with hotels and pubs, mostly in metropolitan areas. Some of the premium categories of liquor being chosen by urban consumers are flavoured drinks and cocktails, which are the work of a bartender. According to the ICRIER (Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations) report on the sector in 2021, the alcobev industry in India employs approximately 15 lakh people. The case of Kerala tells a different story about women’s employment in the bar industry.
The Foreign Liquor Rules , 1963, have provisions prohibiting women from being employed as bartenders and servers of liquor under various licenses.The irony in the provisions of the Foreign Liquor Rules 1963 is that in FL 11 beer and wine parlour license, FL 12 beer retail sale outlet, and FL 13 pub beer parlour licenses, if the licensee is a woman, she can work in any capacity for serving liquor in the establishment. That is, she can work as a bartender or bar server on the licensed premises. If the law allows the woman licensee to work, why are there restrictions on other women working in the same establishment? Similarly, how are the circumstances different in other licensed establishments like clubs or star hotels, where even such exceptions do not exist. In star hotels, women are not permitted to serve alcohol in any capacity, even if one of the licensees is a woman. If the ground for the classification of licenses into two categories, one with restrictions and the other without restrictions for women’s employment, is the consumption of liquor on the premises, then allowing women licensees of FL11, 12, and 13 licenses an exception is demolishing the entire argument. The legislative classification does not stand the test of equality and thus has to be repealed. Additionally, women are not allowed to work in any capacity in a FL 4A club licensed establishment.
The CPPR study found that hotel management hires few women even after the High Court struck down the gender discriminatory provision under the FL3 bar license in the Kerala Foreign Liquor Rules. The hotel management is sceptical of the excise department’s actions against them in the aftermath of the Fly High Bar Incident in Kochi last year. Currently, a few women from the North East states work as waitresses in Kerala’s bar hotels.
Granting club and pub licenses in Kerala will open up opportunities for professional bartenders and mixologists. Legal barriers prevent professionally skilled women bartenders and hospitality professionals from accessing these opportunities. It remains to be seen if the government will discriminate against women who want to enter the toddy business, as Rule 7(37) of the Kerala Abkari Shop Disposal Rules prohibits women from working in toddy shops.
Kerala, being a state known for its high human development and developed consumerist culture, has to rethink the biases against women in the liquor industry. Why is a lucrative job opportunity as a bartender being denied to a woman when she is skilled to do the same? The policy, thus, must be strengthened by suitable amendments being made to the existing excise rules in the state to achieve its intended objectives.
(This article was first published on Samayam Malayalam )
Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of the Centre for Public Policy Research.
Anu Maria Francis is an Associate, Research at Centre for Public Policy Research (CPPR). She completed her graduation in Law from National University of Advanced Legal Studies, Kochi. She has worked as UPSC exam trainer and mentor with many coaching institutions in Kerala. She has also interned with a couple of organisations like Kerala State Information Commission, ACTIONAID India, Ceat Tyres Ltd, Biocon Pharma Ltd, Khaitan and Co Law Firm etc. Her academic interests pertain to legal and governance issues and education. She also has experience in handling business ventures.