The bar has been set so low in Kerala that even a drunk person wouldnâ€™t trip over it. The state government has now reduced the minimum distance that five-star and heritage bars must maintain from schools and religious institutions to 50 metres.
In some places, puddles are wider than that!
In February this year, Sister Susy, the Principal of Holy Angels Convent School in Thiruvananthapuram, was elated as students of her school had successfully shut down a liquor shop that had opened near their school. The students of the all-girls school protested against the opening of a state-run liquor shop, just 50 meters away from the school gate. This, at a time when the Kerala Abkari Act clearly prohibits liquor shops from being set up within 200 meters of sites including temples, religious establishments, schools and SC/ST colonies.
Sister Susy would not have thought then that the brave act of her students would soon be undone by the state government.
According to a Government Order dated August 29, a copy of which is available with TNM, the Kerala government has reduced the distance five-star and heritage bars should maintain from â€˜objectionable sitesâ€™ (like schools and temples, as mandated by the Foreign Liquor Rules) to 50 meters from the earlier 200 meters. The government has stated that it will also issue licences to new four-star, five-star and five-star deluxe hotels, and heritage categories, if they are just 50 metres away from these sites.
The order, signed by Tom Jose, Additional Chief Secretary, says that the decision has been taken as per a communication from the state's Excise Commissioner in this regard, the stated reason being that â€˜high quality standards could be maintainedâ€™ with such rules, although it is unclear how.
According to reports, the new rule will come into effect with the amendment of Kerala Abkari Act.
"It was after a huge protest that we were able to shut down a liquor shop near the school. Now four-star and five-star bars can function near schools legally. This is going to pose a huge problem to the schools. I will have to discuss with the school management and then we will decide how to approach this further," Sister Susy told TNM.
Justifying the government's move, Excise Minister TP Ramakrishnan said that the decision was taken to boost the tourism sector. "The decision is a part of the government's liquor policy and was taken on the basis of a report submitted by the Excise Commissioner. The state has only modified the minimum distance to be followed," the Minister said on Friday.
However, the Minister's justification has failed to convince Opposition parties, who have accused the LDF government of colluding with bar owners to act in their favour.
Speaking to TNM, Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) President MM Hassan says that the Congress party will strongly oppose the state government's move and demand an inquiry into it.
"This decision is just atrocious. On one hand, the government says that its policy is liquor abstinence, but in reality, what they are doing is liquor trade. That too, their actions clearly point to corruption. The government is re-opening all the bars that were shut down by the previous UDF government. What are they trying to do, if not to please the bar owners? The government has some contract with bar owners, that they will re-open all the bars in a phased manner," Hassan alleges.
Rubbishing the Excise Minister's claim that the government wants to boost tourism sector with the new rule change, Hassan says, "The tourism argument is an eyewash. They are making liquor available to everyone and there is huge corruption involved in this."
Slamming the LDF government's order, former KPCC President VM Sudheeran, who was instrumental in formulating the previous UDF government's liquor policy, said that the Kerala government was not with the common people.
"This move is nothing but an Onam gift for bar owners from the Kerala government. With this, the LDF government has proved that it is not with the common people, but with self-financing colleges that loot students, land mafia and liquor barons," Sudheeran wrote in a Facebook post on Friday.
BJP State President Kummanam Rajasekharan told reporters that the government's move indicated social and cultural degradation.
"Government is saying that they consider liquor shops to be more important than schools and religious establishments. Government feels that it is fair to earn revenue by whatever means, even if it is at the expense of people's health and the law and order in the state," Kummanam said.
What are the statistics?
According to a report published by Manorama Online, the number of liquor outlets in the last phase of UDF rule was at 306 state-controlled outlets, 29 bars, 813 beer and wine parlours, and 4730 toddy shops.
In March this year, the figures were: 306 state-controlled liquor outlets, 30 bars, 815 beer and wine parlors and 4,234 toddy shops.
Queue outside a liquor shop in Kerala
However, after the SC ban on sale of liquor within 500 meters from highways, the figures stand:
281 state-controlled liquor outlets, 25 bars, 285 beer and wine parlors and 3,520 toddy shops.
Sale of liquor is one of the largest sources of revenue for the state and reports state that the state accounts for annual revenue of Rs 7,500 crore through liquor sales. When liquor shops had to be shut after the SC order, the state had estimated a loss of at least Rs 2,500 crore.