Drinking Is Bad

article

Tamil Nadu’s revenues from the sale of liquor are rising but so is the distress among women. Many have complained to CM Jayalalitha and demanded prohibition even though it’s been tried before and has failed.BY RAMAKRISHNA UPADHYA

We all know that Abraham Lincoln is credited with the famous saying, “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time.”

There is no conclusive proof that it was actually Lincoln’s original quote and some people attribute a slightly different version of this quotation to the French speaker, Jacques Abbadie, who lived some two centuries earlier, and say that Lincoln might have refined it later. But what the heck, Lincoln certainly wasn’t a fool!

Politicians making fool of the people for quite a while, and people now fighting back is clearly reflected in the current political scenario in Tamil Nadu. For a little over a decade, the two principal political parties, the DMK and the AIADMK, have fiercely vied with each other in offering freebies to the electorate: Cheap rice vs cheap Pongal; free colour TV vs free laptop; free mixievs free grinder; free health insurance vs cheap drugs and so on.

It is no great secret that the money for all these programmes comes from the free flow of liquor, progressively making Tamil Nadu, in value terms, the largest consumer of alcohol in the country. As unbridled alcoholism has begun to take its toll in terms of deteriorating health standards, social unrest and premature deaths causing upheavals in families, a strong people’s movement is building up demanding total prohibition in the state.

DEMAND FOR PROHIBITION

As elections to the state Assembly are less than seven months away, there is frenetic activity among political parties voicing their support for prohibition and trying to lure people to their side. If the Pattali MakkalKatchi (PMK) led by Dr Ramdoss was first off the block making the demand, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) led by the firebrand leader, Vaiko, joined soon after, putting his 91-year-old mother in the forefront of the agitation.

Actor Vijayakanth, founder of the Desiya Murpoku Dravidar Kazhagam (DMDK), known for heavy boozing, also announced his support for prohibition, inviting a lot of derisive banter and jokes in the social media.

It all started rather unobtrusively when Gandhian Sasi Perumal, launched an agitation in January 2013 at Marina beach in Chennai, demanding prohibition in the state. After 33 days of hunger strike, Perumal was arrested by the Jayalalitha government and jailed. When he continued his fasting there, he was taken to hospital and force-fed.

After the Modi government came to power, Perumal decided to make prohibition a national issue. He launched another hunger strike at Jantar Mantar in June 2014, which lasted 35 days. Union home minister Rajnath Singh visited him at the strike venue and assured support.

Fifty-nine year old Perumal’s single-minded pursuit of his demand would perhaps have remained a low-key issue, but for his tragic death on July 31 this year. On that fateful day, he began an agitation in his hometown of Marthandam in Kanyakumari district, demanding the closure of a government liquor shop close to a school and a church.

Perumal had climbed a 120 ft mobile tower with a can containing 5 litres of kerosene and a matchbox, and threatened self-immolation unless the liquor outlet was closed. A large crowd gathered and the police force was deployed. The message was flashed to Chennai but it took almost five hours for the government to come up with an assurance to meet Perumal’s demand.

By the time rescue workers reached him, Perumal was dizzy and vomiting blood. He was brought down and rushed to hospital, but could not be saved. The police registered a case of suicide and closed it.

The Gandhian’s death caused a huge furore across the state. People’s latent anger against the proliferation of liquor shops and increasing cases of premature deaths due to excessive drinking, exploded into violence. Many liquor shops were attacked and burnt down, with women taking the lead.

Parties like MDMK, CPI, CPM, VCK and AAP got together and organized a statewide bandh on Aug 4 demanding prohibition. The DMK’s wily boss, M Karunanidhi, who is still licking the wounds of a double whammy in the last Lok Sabha and Assembly elections, joined the chorus, announcing that his party would bring in prohibition if voted to power in the next Assembly election.

PROHIBITION DOESN’T WORK

Critics pointed out that the five-time chief minister of Tamil Nadu clearly knows that prohibition is unworkable, and in fact, one of the first things he did on becoming chief minister in 1971, was to lift the then existing ban! PMK’s Ramdoss, who has been airing the demand for over two years hoping to attract women voters, called Karunanidhi a ‘hypocrite,’ but his criticism was lost in the din.

Tamil Nadu or the then Madras state, has experimented with prohibition now and then, mostly unsuccessfully; Salem being one of the earliest places in India to ban the sale of liquor in 1937.

Tamil Nadu is also a pioneer of sorts when it comes to offering freebies, which began with very noble intentions. K Kamaraj, the visionary politician who was the chief minister from 1954 to 1963, before Jawaharlal Nehru moved him to Delhi as the president of the Indian National Congress, is credited with opening thousands of schools across the state and also introducing free mid-day meal scheme for the first time in the country.

The mid-day meal programme was vastly expanded when film star turned politician M.G. Ramachandran became the chief minister. It helped in dramatically improving the attendance in schools and also the literacy level.

The rise of Dravidian politics in the 1960s coincided with the Congress’s ‘arrogance’ in trying to impose Hindi, which completely alienated the people. Ever since, the DMK and the AIADMK have alternatively ruled the state, with the Congress playing the second fiddle.

The 2006 Assembly polls was a watershed election. Jayalalitha was fairly confident of winning it, as the ruling DMK had become quite unpopular and fissures within the Karunanidhi family had begun to surface. But the shrewd old man worked out crucial caste alliances and conceded just enough seats to smaller parties, which helped the DMK to pip the AIADMK to become the single largest party and return to power.

Karunanidhi also offered unprecedented handouts like colour TV sets, free health insurance and rice for one rupee a kilo, if voted back to power. The DMK managed to win 96 seats in a House of 234, but that was enough to keep Jayalalitha out, and leave her sulking for the next five years.

WHAT LIQUOR PAYS FOR

Come 2011 Assembly elections, Jayalalitha declared all-out war. The DMK had discredited itself with corruption scandals and Karunanidhi’s sons, MK Stalin and MK Alagiri had made a public spectacle of their rivalry and it looked like a cakewalk for Jayalalitha.

But Jayalalitha was not going to take any chances this time. She announced a slew of goodies, including free laptops for pre-university students, free grinders, mixies, mangala sutras, spectacles, bicycles, cows, goats....so that no section of the people was left out.

The AIADMK front registered a thumping victory, winning 203 seats, while the DMK was reduced to 23 members and the Congress a mere five. Vijayakanth’s DMDK, which took 29 seats being an ally of Jayalalitha, decided to sit in the opposition, protesting against the offer of meagre representation in the cabinet. Jayalalitha chose to ignore him.

The AIADMK’s spectacular show continued in the May 2014 Lok Sabha elections as it swept 37 of the 39 seats. But a clear majority to the BJP under Narendra Modi meant that Jayalalitha had no role to play at the Centre, unlike the DMK which enjoyed power for 10 years under the UPA.

Jayalalitha’s largesse to the people of Tamil Nadu has continued unabated, now taking on the brand name of ‘Amma.’ Amma canteen, which serves up lunch at Rs 5 per plate, is followed by Amma pharmacies, Amma mineral water, Amma salt, Amma seeds....the other announced schemes are Amma theatres (where the ticket will be priced at Rs.25) and Amma baby care (kits for new born babies.)

Now, where does the money come from to finance this reckless spending spree? Tamil Nadu’s major share of revenue comes from the sale of liquor and its unique advantage is that the state government controls both the wholesale and retail trade. The Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation (TASMAC) set up in 1983 as the sole agency for wholesale liquor sales, was also entrusted with complete control of the retail sales in 2003.

The government has opened 6,800 liquor outlets and 4,500 bars throughout the state and the corporation’s revenue grew impressively from Rs 3,640 crore in 2003-04 to Rs 26,188 crore in 2014-15. Liquor sales have nearly doubled in the last five years and in value terms, alcohol consumption in Tamil Nadu is the highest in the country.

The social consequences of creating a society of drunkards has been enormous, with even those in their early teens taking to alcohol. Daily wage earners have become the biggest victims of alcoholism, completely shattering their domestic peace.

There are no ready statistics available on illnesses caused by heavy drinking or premature deaths, but women have risen in a big way demanding introduction of prohibition. In one of those protest meetings, a woman was heard appealing to Jayalalitha, “You give us free mangala sutra for our wedding, but it doesn’t stay on our neck for long. Our families are ruined...”

Despite the growing demand for prohibition, the AIADMK is keeping mum. Annually, the government spends around Rs 8,000 crore on various welfare schemes and Rs 13,000 crore on power subsidy and it is caught in a vicious circle of offering freebies that cannot be sustained without the free-flowing revenue from liquor.

Jayalalitha, despite concerns about her health, remains extremely popular and there is speculation that she might call for early elections and once again win hands down. But given the volatility of Tamil Nadu politics, it will be interesting to see how she will sidestep the landmine of the demand for prohibition.

Summary

  • The demand for total prohibition in Tamil Nadu is rising as alcoholism spreads damaging families irrevocably
  • But the revenues from the sale of alcohol are what funds Chief Minister Jayalalitha’s freebies including cheap meals
  • If she stops doling out freebies, she could well lose public support that too at a time when she is mulling early elections
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