If Kerala Congress chief VM Sudheeran has his way, chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan cannot reverse the prohibition policy of the Oommen Chandy government without God's own referendum. Sudheeran is a politician cast in the Morarji Desai mould and it was largely due to the pressure exerted by him that Chandy decided to go in for phased prohibition in 2014.

 

Only a Kerala version of Brexit - that could well be called Bexit (Exit of Booze) - should, according to Sudheeran, decide if the people of the state want alcohol 24x7 or gradually transform into a dry Kerala by 2024. 

 

“Election was the main referendum,” points out P Rajeev, senior CPM leader, rejecting Sudheeran's demand to go the UK way. “We clearly expressed our opposition to total prohibition in our manifesto and spoke in favour of abstinence. And as you know, people voted for LDF.” 

 

Whether a rollback of the prohibition policy will mean reopening of the closed liquor outlets and bars, CPM leaders are unwilling to commit yet. In 2014, Chandy announced that hard liquor would be sold only in five-star hotels and select liquor outlets.

The prohibition policy was announced in a hurry for political reasons, without any planning just because Chandy did not want Sudheeran to have the upper hand

But the following year, licenses were issued to open 730 beer and wine parlours, in what was seen as a dilution of the prohibition policy. Statistically, the closure of many outlets has made a difference, with a 5.43 crore litres drop in sale of hard liquor in the last two financial years. Absolute alcohol consumption has dropped by 22 per cent. 

 

Alcohol consumption was seen as a major factor contributing to domestic violence and other crime and partial prohibition has had a positive impact. Kerala police have reported a 19% drop in crimes due to alcohol consumption in 2014-15.

 

But travelling through the towns of Kerala, it wouldn't seem prohibition is in force. In Kozhikode town, Chacko has already finished drinking the bottle he bought and is standing in the queue to buy a second drink. “My wife says go and buy rice from the ration shop. Will I or any of these men have the patience to stand in such a long queue for rice? But for booze, we will stand all day. Such is the fondness for liquor,” he explains, his tongue slurring under the influence of Bacchus. 

 

When critics say the prohibition policy is only on paper, they have a point. What the Chandy government did was to place restrictions on the sale of some kinds of liquor and the places where it could be sold. While it hit sales of hard liquor, the sale of beer increased by 2.87 crore litres and wine by 10 lakh litres since April 2014. 

 

Experts say that the prohibition policy of the UDF government was half-baked and Pinarayi Vijayan needs to look at it afresh to make it effective. There is criticism of the policy from within the government itself, from experts in the field.

 

Advisor to the Kerala government and director of the Alcohol and Drug Information Centre, Johnson Edayaranmula says, “If you are closing down liquor shops, it has to be supported by awareness for the high-risk population, which was used to daily drinking. Besides, the opening of so many beer and wine parlours has undone the prohibition policy.”

 

Prohibition was a demand by women in Kerala and a large number welcomed the decision of the Chandy government, even though the menfolk largely were unhappy. But even among the women, the realisation has dawned that Chandy's prohibition policy lacked the bite.

 

“The prohibition policy was announced in a hurry for political reasons, without any planning just because Chandy did not want Sudheeran to have the upper hand,” says Maala Parvathi, activist and actress. 

 

Interestingly, the CPM line on ‘No to total prohibition’ is also advocated by women CPM members. Former Rajya Sabha MP and president of the Kerala unit of All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA), TN Seema calls total prohibition “an impractical solution”. 

I agree liquor issue is a social problem manifesting itself in domestic violence and crime. But the solution to that is not total prohibition.

“I agree liquor issue is a social problem manifesting itself in domestic violence and crime. But the solution to that is not total prohibition. We have to intervene by reducing the number of outlets and ensure the government does not start any new outlets. Today, you have the youth getting addicted to wine and beer,” says Seema. 

 

During the election campaign, even though the LDF had spelt out its stand on prohibition in black and white, the UDF, perhaps realising the simmering anger among the male voters, did not tom-tom about its decision on prohibition. 

 

“Another reason is that if the UDF spoke about prohibition, it would have also reminded people of the bar bribery scam, in which two of its senior ministers were accused of taking a bribe. One of them, Finance minister KM Mani had to resign. Hence prohibition did not occupy centrestage as an election issue,” reasons NP Rajendran, political analyst. 

 

Oommen Chandy had announced that in a decade, Kerala will be a dry state, with gradual reduction of liquor outlets every year. Parvathi admits Kerala no longer gets to see drunk men sprawled on the road at 5 in the morning, a common sight earlier. “But the government cannot be a school principal. Treat citizens as responsible adults, who should be educated on how to drink responsibly,” says Parvathi.