29/08/2016 9:59 AM IST | Updated 29/08/2016 11:50 AM IST

Will Pinarayi Vijayan Give The Bacchus-Lover In Mahabali-Land An Onam Gift?

So far the chief minister has not given any indication that he will oblige.

Facebook/Pinarayi Vijayan

The joy was short-lived as the Kerala government poured cold water on virtual plans for a real Onam high. Within hours of the bureaucratic arm of the Kerala government suggesting that online sale of liquor ahead of Onam festival in September was under consideration, the netas vetoed the idea. Consumerfed's argument was that online sales will reduce the long queues at government outlets in festival season. Consumerfed along with Kerala State Beverages Corporation is one of the government arms that can sell liquor.

Liquor sales traditionally see a huge spike ahead of Onam festival in Kerala. Last year, on the last two days of the Onam festival, the main celebration days, saw liquor sales contributing ₹94.79 crore to the state exchequer, up from ₹83 crore during Onam in 2014.

But the Bacchus-loving Malayalee in Mahabali-land is still hoping for an surprise Onam gift. That the LDF government will relax partial prohibition in Kerala and in the bargain, win over several tippler hearts with one pen stroke. But so far chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan has not given any indication that he will oblige.

The CPM in the run-up to the election, had made it clear that it did not suffer from any Morarji Desai-like pretensions like Kerala Congress president VM Sudheeran who saw in prohibition a weapon to corner Oommen Chandy. The then-chief minister had checkmated Sudheeran by imposing partial prohibition in 2014.

But the UDF could never milk its decision to banish bars and woo the women vote in the assembly elections in May because the voters immediately linked it to allegations of corruption in the bar bribery scam. The scam had claimed the scalp of the UDF finance minister KM Mani, who had to quit in ignominy, after allegations of having accepted a bribe from bar owners.

The LDF which was in favour of moderation, maintained that partial prohibition was not effective on the ground and promised to review it once it came to power. It said that Chandy had taken the decision in haste, without creating awareness for the high risk population which was used to daily drinking. And that by opening 730 beer and wine parlours, the UDF government had undone the prohibition policy and created many beer and wine addicts. Since April 2014, the sale of beer increased by 2.87 crore litres and wine by 10 lakh litres.

Though statistics support the contention that consumption of hard liquor has come down drastically--a 5.43 crore litres drop in sale of hard liquor in the last two financial years and absolute alcohol consumption dropping by 22%--it has done little to undo the craving for alcohol in Kerala. Drive through Kerala and you will find serpentine queues outside authorised government outlets with men waiting patiently for their turn to buy a bottle. The rush acquires a feverish pitch in the first week of every month when the wallet is topped up and the Kerala government expects it to get worse in the run-up to Onam.

India Today Group/Getty Images
File photo of customers buying Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) from a shop run by Kerala State Beverages Corporation (KSBC) on Onam Day in Kerala, India.

While Vijayan has not let anyone know what is on his mind, two of his ministers speaking of a possible U-turn on partial prohibition is being seen as an indication of which way the wind is blowing. Kerala Tourism minister AC Moideen has spoken in favour of opening bars at tourist destinations, instead of restricting the serving of liquor only to 24 five-star hotels. Excise minister TP Ramakrishnan too hinted at a re-look at the existing policy when he said that long queues in front of liquor outlets are "a disgrace to the state''. Tourism Secretary V Venu is candid enough to admit that the excise policy is harming the ₹25,000 crore state tourism sector.

To buttress its argument, the tourism sector is referring to a survey conducted this July among hoteliers, resort owners and tour operators on how Kerala is performing as a MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions) destination. They reported that as opposed to a steady growth of 9.1% in 2013, it fell it 4.8% in 2014 and went into the red to--0.6% in 2015. And 55% of the respondents blamed the excise policy for the sharp nosedive. They also point to Colombo and Goa emerging attracting the MICE traffic from Kerala.

Even the growth rate in foreign tourist arrivals is worrying. From a growth rate of 18.3% in 2010, it came down to 5.9% in 2015. The argument is that Kerala as a tourist destination will crumble if the excise policy is not revisited.

The argument is that Kerala as a tourist destination will crumble if the excise policy is not revisited.

Significantly, Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala, who was Home minister in the previous government, also conceded that the liquor policy did not have the desired effect and supported a review.

LDF leaders have also been talking of how lack of easy availability of liquor has led to increase in smuggling from Tamil Nadu and Mahe, which is part of the Union territory of Puducherry, bordering Kannur district. The other more serious concern is reported increase in substance abuse.

But the counter argument to those piggybacking on tourism to roll back prohibition is that Kerala police has reported a 19% drop in crimes due to alcohol consumption in 2014-15. The choice before the chief minister therefore is possible increase in cases of domestic violence and brawls by drunken men on the streets versus more money in the Kerala exchequer and salvaging the tourism sector.