Kerala drinks merrily despite closure of bars: Star hotels give way to ‘family bars’

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“Drink, eat and be merry, for tomorrow we die”. This cliche fits the Keralites most, if one goes by official statistics that put Kerala on top in liquor consumption in India. The per capita consumption of liquor in the state is 12 litres a year, which is roughly twice the national consumption.

The age at which youngsters begin to consume liquor has also come down in the state. While in the eighties, the age at which youngsters started drinking was 19, by nineties it came down to 17 and further down to 14 at the beginning of this decade.

As part of its commitment to make Kerala alcohol-free in 10 years, the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) in Kerala decided to shut down 730 two, three, and four-star bars, go in for more ‘dry’ days, and bring down the retail outlets of the Kerala State Beverages Corporation (KSBC) by 10 % every year. As a result, only 24 bars in the five-star category remain functional in the State now. The Government allowed  312 three and four-star hotels to open only beer and wine parlours to address the loss of jobs and cushion the impact of the new liquor policy on tourism and hospitality sectors.

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The ban would cause a revenue loss of Rs 8,000 crore to the Kerala Government, that is more than one-third of the State Government’s annual plan outlay. The damage the decision would bring on tourism and IT industries – the two pillars on which the state’s economy is riding – is yet to be quantified.

On the face of it, the closure of liquor bars has little impact on consumption. Liquor is still freely available from the 334 outlets of KSBC at subsidised rates. Even some five-star hotels have allegedly opened counters to supply liquor to the public at low rates. Some of the beer/wine parlours that are allowed to function are clandestinely selling the heady stuff.

According to the figures submitted by Kerala Government to the High Court, the sale of Indian Made Foreign Liquor and beer have recorded robust growth even after the closure of 418 bar hotels in the first phase. The income of Beverages Corporation has increased by Rs 517 crore in the period from April to August 2014, when 418 bars out of 750-odd ones remained closed.  The Corporation’s sales went up to Rs3,237 crores during this period from Rs2,720 crore in the corresponding period of the previous year. The sale of beer in the bars increased to Rs 87 crore from Rs 47 crore.

Opinion is divided even within the ruling Congress party as to the impact of the ban on the ground. KPCC President V M Sudheeran, who spearheaded the campaign for prohibition, said the closure of  bars has created a tremendous positive impact in the state. “Crime rate has dropped and the number of drunkards seen lying on roads has reduced. The financial situation in many homes has improved with breadwinners giving more money for household expenses,” he said.

But his party senior and former Defence Minister A K Antony has a different perspective. “Family bars are on the rise in the state. According to some reports, about 30 % of the households in the state have now become bars. This is not a good trend and will only lead to destruction,” he said.

As cautioned by Antony, maladies caused by heavy drinking such as mental illness, unhappy  marriages, divorces and lower economic productivity are a major cause of concern for the state. Kerala’s high liquor consumption has much to do with the State’s dubious distinction of having the highest rate of individual suicide and the highest crime rate in India.