Going high on liquor policies

S Madhusudhana Rao

It is ironical while Kerala, which had the dubious distinction of being the highest per capita consumer of alcohol in the country, had embarked on a historic journey towards complete prohibition last year, the two Telugu states are moving in the opposite direction. They are going the extra mile to boost liquor sales and promote the drinking habit among all sections of people in a sober but conspicuous way.

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S Madhusudhana Rao

What is interesting is both state governments have fig leaf explanations to boost booze sales. If liquor business is a huge revenue generator for cash-strapped Andhra Pradesh, the funds-surplus Telangana State sees opportunities of growth, investment and tourism in the bottle. The KCR government believes that by prizing open the cork, it can project Hyderabad as a destination for international tourists and investors.

Andhra Pradesh’s new liquor policy for 2015-17, the first after bifurcation, which came into effect on July 1, has opened more avenues to satiate guzzlers’ thirst. The Chandrababu Naidu government has even entered the liquor trade with the state reserving at least 10 per cent of the total number of retail outlets for itself. The rest will be auctioned off for private bidders. The government outlets are being opened, ostensibly, to control maximum retail price of various brands of hard liquors like gin, whiskey, brandy, rum, vodka, etc and beers and to check possible violations by private licensees.

A significant feature of AP Excise Policy is liquor sale at shopping malls, supermarkets and hypermarkets that are going to mushroom in cities like Vizag, Vijayawada and the Capital Region. If press reports are to be believed, the July sales had already touched Rs 1200 crores as against Rs 965 crores last July. Needless to say, ‘respectable’ outlets at shopping centres have done brisk business, contributing significantly to AP coffers. State government officials are expecting to mop up about Rs 14,000 crores with the new initiative and if the present pitch continues, they can easily beat the target.

Buoyed up by the tipplers’ response, the AP government is planning to permit more malls and consumer markets to open liquor shops in an obvious attempt to woo classy boozers who normally shy away from roadside shops. And, an added service is home delivery through SMS, for discreet consumers. What all this gulps down to is to make liquor availability easier and within the reach of every intended/habituated tippler.

Not to be left behind, Telangana too has high plans to liberalize liquor consumption. Its new excise policy that governs sale and control of liquor in the state is still being worked out, although it should have been out by July 1, because of a strange situation it is in after bifurcation: The excise department that oversees implementation of prohibition laws will also be responsible for the proposed new liquor policy. That means the department will be in a dichotomy. The TRS government has to find a way out or circumvent the laws governing prohibition which are the legacy of united AP governments.

Until recently, like in many other states, liquor policy had always been a contentious issue in the Telugu-speaking region. In the 1990s, Andhra had witnessed a strong women’s movement against liquor, particularly in rural areas where illicit brews used to kill dozens of addicts. Families were ruined because of breadwinners’ addiction and deaths due to consumption of illegally distilled toxic arrack.

Bowing to popular demand, the Congress government banned arrack in 1993; but two years later NT Rama Rao who came to power promising total prohibition, among other things, fulfilled his promise. Though the move was welcomed by many sections of society, it resulted in huge loss of revenue and led to rampant smuggling of spirits from neighbouring states. The beneficiaries were those guarding state border check posts and officials responsible for implementing the total prohibition. Smugglers used to bribe their way to sell booze at a premium to customers.

Not in a position to lose crores of revenue, Chandrababu Naidu, the then Chief Minister, had reversed his father-in-law’s policy in 1997 by lifting ban on Indian made foreign liquors and beers which helped guzzlers of costly spirits. But arrack lovers were left out. As a result, the illegal brewing continued to thrive. However, in between, government had supplied cheap liquor in polythene packs to avert illicit brew deaths.

Now, the Telangana government plans to open wine tasting centres, longer hours for bars and pubs, liquor/beer outlets at big supermarkets, etc. The new liquor policy is expected to incorporate stringent provisions to check and punish those indulging in illicitly distilled liquor (gudumba) trade. At the same time, arrack is expected to be made available without hassle.

While the drinkers at every level of society will be happy with the AP-TS liquor policies, what is flummoxing is how self-contradictory rules would be followed, let alone implemented.

Look at provisions of AP Prohibition Policy. It says, “The Enforcement wing will be strengthened to effectively control all Excise offences including un-authorised sale outlets (belt shops); the Health, Medical & Family Welfare Department will establish one de-addiction centre in every district in the State; intensive campaign to educate the public about responsible drinking and the evil effects of irresponsible drinking shall be taken up.”

Can anybody draw a line between ‘responsible and irresponsible’ drinking? And, who defines it and sets limits? In fact, these policies contravene Article 47 in the Constitution of India. It says:

“The State shall regard the raising of the level of nutrition and the standard of living of its people and the improvement of public health as among its primary duties and, in particular, the State shall endeavour to bring about prohibition of the consumption except for medicinal purposes of intoxicating drinks and of drugs which are injurious to health.”

Even if we accept the fact that prohibition has never worked in any part of the world and led to rampant corruption and spurious liquor deaths, is it prudent to go whole hog to make liquor, one of the easiest addictions, easily available?

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