The Kerala government has often emphasised its preference and commitment to empower women. The state has been at the forefront of various struggles against socio-cultural and patriarchal bonds that inhibit women’s freedom. Budgetary commitments to strengthen these struggles is a welcome move, however, such commitments address only a part of the issue. The narrative of empowerment is not limited to physical institutions or finance but rather the norms that develop around these institutions. Some of these informal rules have reached the extent of being pervasive, especially those with regards to the liberty and freedom of women in the state. Although women empowerment has become a cliched component of the reforms bundle of the government, the social status of women in Kerala consistently lags behind that of men. Viewing Kerala only through an economic lens might hide significant fault lines in its development debate. As far as policies are concerned, it is high time that the state government committed itself to a major reform.
The best place to start is to bring about reforms in the state-monopolised alcohol industry. The Abkari policy of the state of Kerala has certain glaring problems. The policy not only discriminates women but also leads to growing inequalities among liquor consumers. Over the last two decades, under various governments in Kerala, the retail sale and distribution of alcohol has been monopolised by the state. Symbols of this monopoly are the retail outlets under the Beverages Corporation of Kerala (BEVCO). BEVCO is a state-owned entity controlling production, distribution and sales of liquor. What has happened over a period of time is that these outlets have grown to be shady and dingy places where men dominate and exhibit patriarchal controls. There are reported instances where women were beaten up for trying to purchase liquor from BEVCO outlets. The recent debate on whether women can serve liquor in bars in Kerala is a fallout of male dominance in the industry.
In short, women cannot access a government-controlled liquor store in Kerala nor are they viewed without suspicion and contempt when they enter a bar. How then do we define women empowerment? When a policy of the state leads to normalising disempowerment, we need to rethink the efficiency of this policy. As the government plans to expand the number of BEVCO outlets in the near-term, what it is indirectly aiding is the growth of patriarchal hotspots across the state. These are not voluntary association of men but rather association of men who have encroached these spaces in response to a faulty policy of the government.
As a legalised commodity, liquor can be bought and consumed by individuals. Reports of the NSS as well as NFHS in its various rounds indicate that there are women in Kerala who consume liquor. And why not? These official figures might in fact be hiding the actual number of consumers. While there might be bars as well as four- or five-star hotels in the state that are accessed by women, it does not in any way indicate that women in Kerala enjoy sovereignty as a consumer. The introduction of premium counters and female staff in BEVCO outlets provided marginal changes but not significant enough to usher in major reforms. Premium counters segregate the high-income classes from the rest by providing only high-priced liquor. The less privileged may not have access to these spaces. The policy of the government thus limits the choices of the consumers. Is it not high time that the state government reconsidered its Abkari policy?
The Abkari policy of Kerala has also had the effect of classifying the consumer population into three: those who access BEVCO outlets (ordinary and premium/self-service), those who use bars, and those who frequent star hotels. This is more or less based on the consumer’s income. The policy has aided segregation of the society into income classes and gender groups as far as accessing liquor is concerned. If the state government is truly interested in exhibiting its commitment to protecting the interests of women, it needs to start with ensuring that women do not feel intimidated and threatened, at least in a government-controlled liquor outlet. If the government cannot ensure rule of law in a space in which it has complete control, it is imaginable what law prevails in the rest of the state. It is time to act wisely.
Rahul V Kumar is Research Fellow (Market Economics) at Centre for Public Policy Research. Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.
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Rahul V Kumar is a Research Fellow at CPPR. He has an MA in Economics and an MPhil in Applied Economics and International Relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi). Currently, he teaches graduate students.