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Siddharth Mohan Nair | The News Minute | December 19, 2014 | 9.45 pm IST The fundamental goal of the government is to achieve total prohibition in Kerala by 2024, and therefore, we open the closed bars for now. The bars will not sell hard liquor, but wine and beer only. Our aim is also to reduce the impact of liquor on people, and wine and beer have less impact. This is precisely the escape route that the Congress-led UDF has taken in the state for diluting the much contentious prohibition scheme. On Thursday, succumbing to pressure from various groups, the state government announced that Sundays shall no longer be “dry-days” and that the 418 bars that had been shut from the beginning of the current financial year will begin functioning. The Chief Minister had the difficult job of announcing this decision to the people. Difficult because everything what he had to say was in total conflict with what he and his colleagues had said before when the prohibition scheme was launched. “Today I am proud to inform you all that we have taken a bold step towards achieving total liquor prohibition in the state. We know that it will affect the state’s economy but there is no question of taking back this step. What the state is to lose in monetary terms is nothing when compared to the social gain when liquor is banned in the state,” Chief Minister Oommen Chandy had said on August 8. From the very beginning, Oommen Chandy and his cabinet have showed they were spineless when it came to dealing with the liquor policy. First it was pressure from Congress President V.M. Sudheeran and elements like the church which created the din for prohibition. Not wanting to be seen as pro-liquor, the Chandy government announced a liquor policy that wasn't well thought out right from the beginning. Slowly, pressure started building up from all sides and the cookie crumbled. First it was the question of rehabilitating bar workers, then the question of tourism and revenue and finally tough questions from the High Court. The government faltered at every stage, not having the guts to either stick to its decision or completely do away with the new liquor policy. From day one the announced liquor policy was contentious. The government’s decision to close only ordinary bars keeping the five and four star bars open made people ridicule that the move was anti-poor and pro-rich. Further the decision that outlets of BEVCO – the state-run liquor shops – would remain open put a question mark on the government’s actual intent. On the question of those working in the bars losing employment, the government said it would provide financial assistance to employees of existing bars to help them get new jobs. The government said that it would impose a cess of 5% on liquor sales and that this would be used as a corpus for running anti-liquor campaigns and for rehabilitating over 7,400 workers who would lose their jobs. Now that the bars are going to be opened, there is no question of using the corpus for rehabilitating the workers. As regards to conducting anti-liquor campaign, would the state be justified in carrying out such campaigns when its own decision has been to sell liquor? When there were praises for the Chief Minister for having taken the bold decision, the Finance Minister, K.M. Mani, on August 22, had said that “if the glory is there for the chief minister, we being his cabinet colleagues will also get the glory.” He added that “no finance minister will like to become poorer, as there will be an estimated drop of Rs.1,811 crore this fiscal following the closing down of all the bars.” But he did not become poor, rather, it was alleged he was made richer, if we are to go by the bribe case that came out soon. On August 23, Biju Ramesh, the working president of Kerala Bar Hotel Association said that they would discuss and come out with a “firm decision on how to move forward.” The “firm decision” was perhaps the payment of Rs. 1 crore that he alleged to have given the Finance Minister, which he revealed on November 1. On August 28 the Tourism Minister A.P. Anil Kumar said that tourism in the state would get affected because of the decision but it would study the Gujarat model of prohibition. "We are told there is some system of issuing a permit (for tourists) in Gujarat, we will now find out what the system is," he had said. It seems that the state did not study or did not like the Gujarat model, for it is the same ministry’s finding (and also that of the labour) that made the government change the policy. By 11 PM on September 10 all the bars in the state would have closed down but for the Supreme Court which stayed the order till September 30 following a plea by the state’s bar owners. The apex court asked the High Court of Kerala to expedite the trial. On October 5 the Sunday dry-day rule was enforced. The idea was a brainchild of the Chief Minister. Diluting the prohibition policy on Thursday he said that making Sunday as a dry day did not serve the purpose and he and his government decided to nullify the rule. On October 30, the single bench of the High Court partially okayed the government prohibition when it permitted the four and five star hotels and heritage hotels to sell liquor. The very next day the division bench of the same court stayed the single bench’s order. The three star bar owners had appealed to it saying that by permitting only few kinds of hotels the right to equality was being violated. When the opposition parties took up the bribe issue and stalled the assembly the Chief Minister, on December 3, said "our liquor policy is not negotiable but we will be making slight corrections with regards to the suggestions with regards to the tourism industry and on the rehabilitation of workers who have lost their jobs.” Despite being given a clean chit by the CM and the state Lokayukta, the Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau (V&ACB) registered an FIR against the minister after finding prima facie evidence. Finally it was clear on December 15 that some changes were sure to be made in the policy. What was the reason for the sudden change we are yet to know. Opposition parties claim that there is a quid pro quo between the government and bar owners, with regards to the bribery issue. All changes made to the policy were opposed by the KPCC president. "Sudheeran did not agree fully to the suggestions that were made. He wanted a comprehensive study. We all know the passion and commitment he has on this liquor issue. We all took his opposition in positive spirit," Chief Minister Chandy said. On Friday the KPCC president issued a press release criticizing the move. “The government has changed its stand and this has shocked the people,” he said. He also alleged that the changes that have been made were done to cater to some vested interest. He even alleged that the secretaries of the ministries of tourism and labour who prepared a report based on which the government changed the policy had worked in somebody’s interest. He, however, forgets or seems to deliberately forget the fact that the secretaries were asked to prepare the report by the Congress-led cabinet itself. Therefore, if he casts aspersions on the two secretaries, it is the cabinet that he is targeting, deliberately or otherwise. While the Indian Union Muslim League, an ally of the ruling UDF has seconded the KPCC president, the Chief Minister has responded to the KPCC president’s criticism saying that while at power one cannot always do what one wants or likes. Practicality had to be taken into account, Chief Minister Chandy said. Leader of Opposition V.S. Achuthananthan has said that the KPCC president should resign. What the entire episode has shown is that the Chandy government is a spineless one. It had way too many considerations and had to satisfy different groups because of which the policy crumbled. Tweet
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