by Sumitra Nair | April, 4, 2017 | Kochi Post

Two years ago in 2015, when the Kerala State Government decided to shut down close to 730 bars, there was an uproar from bar owners and workers saying their livelihood will be affected. Now when the State is on the brink of a total alcohol ban due to shops near highways being shut, the State is raising a hue and cry stating that its coffers will be affected. Either way, people who are addicted to alcohol will not only be facing a problem but might go to any lengths to satisfy their addiction. Also, numerous shop owners might lose their only source of income.

This decision by the Supreme Court is being met by heavy criticism. The Supreme Court is however justifying the act by stating various statistics related to accidents on the highway due to alcohol abuse. In 2014 alone, 7307 accident cases involving driving under the influence of drugs/alcohol resulting in 7398 injuries and 2591 deaths, were registered.

The National Road Safety Council (NRSC), an apex body for road safety, had recommended in 2004 itself that licences for liquor shops along highways should be retracted. The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways [MoRTH] has been consistently advising State Governments to retract licenses of liquor shops near the highways.

Drunken driving or use of a vehicle under the influence of drugs can lead to a fine of INR 2000 or up to six months’ jail- time or both under Section 185 of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988. Harsher laws haven’t really reduced instances of accidents. The supreme court has therefore come out with such a decision in a view to safeguard human life.

The state of Himachal Pradesh is however exempted from the law. Existing liquor shops with licenses may continue operation, but not further than 30th September 2017. Many State Governments, like that of Rajasthan has de-notified highways for vendors to be able to continue sales.

Kerala, a pseudo dry state has however taken a hit for the worse with liquor shops seeing lengthier queues to stock up and store opening and shutting 30 minutes early and late to cater to increase in demand. In Kerala, where liquor is sold and monopolised by the State, the sudden closure of 207 of the nearly 850 retail liquor outlets has caused a huge problem for the tipplers as well as the administration. Close to five lakh people in Kerala consume alcohol on a daily basis. Within a week of this judgement, losses amounting to crores are being borne by hotel owners are being reported.

Dr. V. Venu, Principal Secretary, Tourism Department says, “The judgement will have a devastating impact on tourism in Kerala. Many of our major hotel properties are on the side of highways. Unlike in major cities elsewhere, where the highways do not enter cities, but bypass them, towns in the State hug the highways – even our bypasses become part of the city. Shutdown of bars and beer outlets will kill off our MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions) business prospects, already hit hard by the restrictive excise policy the State adopted two years ago. Tourism revenues will be substantially affected, perhaps up to 30%.”

With INR10,000 crores from INR 40,0000 of the State revenue being from the liquor trade, Kerala hopes to seek for a three-month exemption for some relief. The State is also considering to de-notify state highways. Also, there’s the fear of drinkers trying to lay their hands on more lethal substances like drugs and other narcotic substance.

“A restriction on such a scale, has never been successful anywhere in the world. Not only will people look for alternative mechanisms, but the poor will become poorer, in a bid to travel farther to get their daily drink. The habits of long distance drivers wont change overnight. In fact, if liquor is liberalised, especially in a state like ours, the problems will to an extend reduce. Such a restriction doesn’t help especially since alcohol and addiction are man-made problems. Alcohol distribution should be regularised and privatised instead of the State holding monopoly over it. A judgement like this will only cause the opposite to take place where people will resort to illegal means to obtain alcohol and try gaining access to cheap quality alcohol. The State revenue system too, needs to be modified by bringing in companies and sharing of revenue based on taxation,” says D Dhanuraj, Chairman, Centre for Public Policy Research.

According to High Court Lawyer Jayakrishnan S, “Though not a blanket ban, the problem will only worsen. Long distance drivers who drink will continue to do so and people living in the area will resort to other means like toddy, and other illegal substances like drugs. The government however shouldn’t be fighting this only because of revenue, but needs to analyse the larger picture and stop pseudo moralising by preventing people from drinking in general. The State Government needs to find an alternative solution to this problem of alcoholism on the whole.”

Narayanan Kutty, Divisional Department Excise Commissioner, Ernakulam too, says that “It is a problem that the State Government needs to resolve- be it affecting livelihood of many, affecting the tourism revenue or people resorting to more lethal alcohol.”

The onus as of now, to resolve the alcohol issue in the State, seems to be on the State. Is is high time that the State Government stopped pseudo moral policing and preventing people from drinking? Is liberalisation the way out of this mess?

This article was published in the Kochi Post on April 4, 2017. Click here to read the published article: Chaos Sets in Kerala as Liquor Shops Near Highways Shut Down

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