The biggest news to come out of Tamil Nadu over the last few days has been a vociferous call for alcohol prohibition by opposition parties. While prohibition has been a hot topic in Tamil Nadu’s polity over the years, statements by DMK chief Karunanidhi supporting the ban on alcohol is a clear shift in the party policy of the past 20 years. The recent demise of prohibition activist Sasi Perumal has only exacerbated the demand for prohibition. This would in effect shut down the state liquor retailer TASMAC, and see the erosion of close to 20,000 Crore in revenue that is currently garnered from liquor sales. While the call for prohibition isn’t exactly new, this is probably the first time in almost 20 years, where almost every party in the state, big or small, is pretty much on the same page with respect to this issue. It also reeks of desperation of a polity which is desperately trying to one-up Jayalalitha whose popularity is at an all-time high. This article will try and present a history of prohibition in Tamil Nadu, the economic and politics of it, and try to predict the future of tippling in the state.
TN and its tryst with prohibition:
Tamil Nadu has had a long tradition of dabbling with prohibition since its erstwhile Madras state days. C. Rajagopalachari, the first Chief Minister of Madras, introduced prohibition in his very first tenure. This lasted until the early 60s under Congress Govts. led by K Kamaraj. The abolition of prohibition essentially began after the ascent of Karunanidhi to the Chief Minister’s chair. Claiming that illicit liquor was harming the state and bootlegging had become a major problem, the then CM abolished prohibition. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Rajaji begged Karunanidhi to rethink his decision, which he refused to do so at that time. The DMK however reversed their decision a few years later, reinstating prohibition which was once again repealed when AIADMK’s magnetic leader MGR became the CM for the first time. Since then, Tamil Nadu hasn’t seen a return to total prohibition, albeit the degree of state control has varied over the years, and currently one could argue that it is among the least tippler-friendly, prohibition-free states in the Union.
The economics and politics of prohibition:
Since the early 2000s, all retail sales of liquor are conducted through TASMAC, a state-owned enterprise which is one of the largest revenue generators for Tamil Nadu, with some estimates claiming it brings in a quarter of all tax revenue for the state. The state sits right on top with respect to alcohol sale by volume, making licenses for TASMAC establishments highly valuable, and invariably awarded to party loyalists, and is one of many ways to keep party cadres happy. The TASMAC cash cow is also one of the major reasons why Tamil Nadu is able to undertake some of its more ridiculous social schemes (read handouts). Indeed, neither the DMK nor AIADMK has any locus standi to call for prohibition, considering that they are both direct and indirect beneficiaries of TASMAC. The only two parties which have been reasonably consistent over the years on their stand on the prohibition issue are Dr. Ramadoss’ PMK and Vaiko’s MDMK, both bit players who are struggling to keep their meager vote base alive, in a state that is increasingly becoming Amma vs. the rest. The less said about new political entrant Vijaykanth the better, for irrespective of his party’s stance on this issue, his personal image is that of a person who partakes in liquor quite generously.
End to the revelry:
The question of prohibition is extremely relevant to the state considering alcoholism is one of the pressing issues that it is currently facing. One study even concludes that up to 40% of rural men are addicted to alcohol in the state. The phenomena is causing tremendous erosion of personal savings, particularly among low income groups, and is emerging as a key component in domestic abuse. Additionally, residents living close to TASMAC bars experience trouble on a daily basis, something this author can personally confirm. The problems associated with alcohol has compounded so strongly over the years, that currently one could argue that prohibition would be welcome by many, if not most of the electorate. Looking at it from a cynical electoral perspective, while prohibition might alienate a fraction of the adult male vote, it will see near unilateral support among the female and the conservative voter base, and therefore all political parties (particularly the diminishing DMK), would like to earn the accolades that comes with being the party responsible for prohibition.
Rumbles among the AIADMK cadre suggest that the party Supremo too is amiable to the idea 0f prohibition, but wants to announce it only in 2016, closer to the elections. This would have also given the state enough time to figure out alternatives to make up the revenue deficit arising from closing down TASMAC. The developments over the last few days however might force Jayalalitha in revealing her cards much sooner than anticipated. Either way, some form of prohibition is more or less certain, come 2016, irrespective of which party comes to power. It will however have to be seen if it would be a sustained policy, considering that the easy money to be made from liquor sales is too tempting to let go of. One shouldn’t be surprised if prohibition is called off again in 2017/2018 citing proliferation of spurious liquor as the reason, with the truth being simply weakened state finances.
The author’s take:
History has shown that prohibition has generally not worked in Tamil Nadu (and in most other places) and has only seen a rise in deaths due to spurious liquor, and a thriving bootlegging industry. The proximity of Pondicherry to Chennai also does not help matters as it’s quite easy to smuggle liquor across the checkposts. It can however not be denied that alcoholism has destroyed many families in the state, and the Govt. has done very little to address this particular issue. Solving the problem of alcoholism however cannot be done solely via prohibition, and requires a multi-pronged approach that restricts access, and also weans vulnerable groups from it via physical and mental conditioning. A simple idea that could be implemented relatively easily is to have rationed liquor sales to individuals via smart cards a la the Bratt system. While it is inevitable that there would be some abuse of this system, it would still act as a considerable deterrent and can be continuously improved. Whether the ruling Govt. would be truly interested in genuinely solving the problem and not resort to mere optics is open to speculation however, and is left to the imagination of the reader.