If there is one thing that the Congress is banking on in its attempt to defy history and come to power for a second consecutive time in Kerala, it’s the United Democratic Front’s liquor prohibition policy.
In 2014, the Chandy government delicensed all the bars in Kerala except hotels classified as five-star and above with an aim to cut down the sale of liquor.
In Kerala politics, the issue is of such importance that while the BJP has drawn flak for not making its stance clear, the CPM-LDF was forced to support the UDF’s policy, fearing a substantial loss in vote bank.
‘Liquor is the Issue’
With their huge influence on voters, Church and religious institutes in Kerala have openly supported the UDF’s stance. In an article titled ‘Liquor is the issue’, the Thrissur Archdiocese of the Syro-Malabar Church supported UDF’s policy raising questions about whether the LDF would reopen the closed bars if elected to power.
While there has been no public study on the consumption pattern or the increase of alcoholism in Kerala, in the UDF and LDF’s political fight on the liquor policy, the ganja or marijuana industry seems to be the ultimate winner.
Twenty-two-year-old Ujesh* is recovering from drug addiction at a de-addiction centre close to Thiruvananthapuram.
As a child, Ujesh saw his alcoholic father and grandfather lose the household income to their addiction. As a teenager, his mother’s struggle to make ends meet troubled him. Finding it hard to cope with the alcoholics in the family, he decided to take a job in Ernakulam.
I started working at an aluminium fabrication company. I used to drink beer back home but in Ernakulam, I discovered that most social gatherings were all about ganja. Initially, I resisted but later I gave up. In less than two months, I was an addict, smoking all through the night.Ujesh
Gradually, Ujesh stopped calling his mother, visiting the family or sending money back home. Giving up beer and toddy, he found his new love in marijuana.
We are not bothered about the liquor ban. Ganja is the ‘in-thing’ for school and college students in Kerala. Bob Marley songs translated in Malayalam are a rage amongst the trippers. There are ganja groups and clubs all across Kerala.Ujesh
Ujesh now wants to be okay for his mother. But the toughest task for him is to abstain once he returns to the places that are full of ganja addicts and alcoholics.
Youth in Kerala have switched from liquor to ganja. It’s available very easily and they have devised new ways to consume it. From toffees to tea, as an oil to fabricate cigarettes, biscuits or simply in the form of psychiatric drug tablets. While the governments are fighting over the liquor policy, a new parallel industry has cropped up and nobody is talking about this.Preethi Sylvia, Counsellor with Bodhi De-Addiction Centre
Meanwhile, women like Ujesh’s mother Malthi*, swear to vote for UDF and Oommen Chandy. For them, the ban on liquor is the only hope to save their families.
Wherever I go and speak to women, they are very happy with the ban. In fact, most of them want a complete ban. So there is no doubt that the public is happy with the ban. Congress has taken a bold step, defying the powerful liquor lobby. We will tackle the post-ban issues with the same conviction.Oommen Chandy, Chief Minister Kerala
While, Congress claims a 24% dip in the consumption of liquor after the ban, the CPM claims revenue from Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) sales has gone up to Rs 1,012.60 crore during 2015-16 from Rs 801.14 crore in 2014-15.
As Kerala faces an estimated loss of more than Rs 7,000 crore annually, also leaving thousands of people jobless, the critics of the prohibition policy believe that the move will take things two steps back.
Liquor is not banned in Kerala. It’s available in deadly combinations of wine, beer and toddy with drugs and chemicals. Successive governments need to bring a change in the consumption pattern and get to the root of the problem. But neither CPM nor UDF has concentrated on this. The irony is in Kerala, governments perform with a five-year vision.Sugathakumari, prominent writer and activist in Kerala
So will things change if CPM comes to power?
CPM and its cadre have been supported by the liquor lobby for decades in Kerala. Like all the parties, they have lived the hypocrisy of practicing and preaching a different thought. If they come to power, the challenge for them will be to re-invent the closed bars and parlours.Paul Zacharia, Prominent writer and columnist in Kerala
For an ordinary Keralite, the mystery lies in how toddy and liquor, being an integral part of Kerala’s food and culture, became an ugly drinking problem in the state.
*Some names have been changed on request to protect the identities of those interviewed.