image.jpegIt depends on which way you look at it, but there is cheer all around. The prohibitionists are happy that the State has finally begun a phased dismantling of its liquor vending outlets. Those who are against it are happy at the slow pace in which this is likely to happen. Much will depend on how earnest the State Government will be in the coming years to swing one way or the other.
The newly elected party began implementing from its first day in office its poll promise of bringing prohibition to Tamil Nadu in a gradual manner. It ordered the closure of 500 out of 8,500 liquor outlets run by the Government controlled Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation aka TASMAC. In reality, no Government would really want to do away with the system that has been in place since 1983, bringing in as it does much needed revenue to the State, though at a cost to public health. But it reflects on the way electoral mathematics forces the hands of parties and also on the way political thinking has changed on the way the Governments need to be run.
Tamil Nadu was dry for a long time, till when in the early 1970s prohibition was lifted on the grounds that this was anyway not national policy and was resulting in loss of revenue for the State while neighbouring ones happily filled their coffers. It was brought back in 1974, only to go away in 1981. Thereafter there were attempts at controlling arrack and toddy sales, but not branded alcohol. In 1983, the Government entered the liquor retailing business by establishing TASMAC, which controlled the procurement and also sale of alcohol via licensed outlets. Retailing was, however, not a Government monopoly till 2002 when TASMAC assumed absolute control over the sale of liquor in the State.
Matters would have gone on the same way had not prohibition become a powerful electoral promise made by what was otherwise a caste-based minority political party. This was the same outfit that had while its representative enjoyed a brief stint in the Central Government successfully piloted legislation for increasingly visible warnings on the dangers of smoking. The larger political parties of Tamil Nadu were apprehensive that this could result in a vote swing and soon made it part of their manifesto. It was rather ironic that the very same entities that had lifted prohibition and later made the State a player in liquor sales in the name of revenue should now argue for it in the name of public health, morale, domestic happiness and women’s welfare. While most parties promised outright prohibition if elected to power, the one that finally won had consistently advocated a phased implementation and that is what it is going about now.
As to what kind of an impact the closure of 500 outlets will have is to be seen. While the Government communiqué says that TASMAC has already identified these outlets, it is not clear if any homework has gone into their selection. A cynical view has it that most of these would probably be ones that did not see much sales. It would have been better if the Government had committed itself to doing away with those that are in proximity to educational institutions, hospitals and places of worship as a start.
What is of concern is that the State Government is yet to come out with a plan of how it proposes to impose prohibition in a gradual manner. What for instance will its investment be in temperance and counselling activities that will go a long way in minimising the shock of total prohibition, as and when it comes? Till then, the seriousness of its intent will be questioned and the closure of the first 500 will be dismissed as a mere gimmick.