news Thursday, August 06, 2015 - 05:30

(A Tasmac elite shop)

Why now?

That’s a question that may have crossed some minds as Tamil Nadu grapples with its alcohol problem. Protests have erupted across the state with political parties, college students as well as the local residents taking up the call for prohibition.

A state that consumes 17% of India’s total liquor intake, what’s interesting is not the debate on the necessity for prohibition which was bound to take place sooner than later but why this discussion was not brought up before during the last few regimes.

The bane for many families in Tamil Nadu, many who have lost out  financially and health wise from excessive alcohol consumption, the fact remains that for an extended period of time nothing was said or done to curtail drinking by any government or opposition parties.

So much so, that while perils of various diseases and health conditions were discussed publicly, any talk against alcohol consumption was conspicuous by its absence. Instead Tasmac shops began mushrooming across the state over the years. At least 6600 Tasmac shops exist across the state now.

Governments that came to power every five years took considerable amount of time in inversing the works of the previous government ( a Rs. 1200 crore Secretariat built in the heart of the city by the DMK was  converted into a multi-speciality hospital by the following government), one aspect of the TN government that has remained constant is the machinery and policies regarding alcohol sale and consumption.

The government has progressively made more and more revenue through its monopoly over alcohol distribution, but according to reports, its not just supply that plays a role here. Even alcohol supply is restricted to a few selected manufacturing local players who have been approved for supply by the government. Many of these local players owning breweries and distilleries are believed to have intricate political connections.

According to the TASMAC website, there are currently 11 distilleries and seven breweries in Tamil Nadu. The fortunes of those making the big bucks change along with the ruling government. Case in point, some companies shine under the DMK rule, others under the AIADMK.

Midas Golden Distilleries is reportedly owned by Karthikeyan Kaliyaperumal, who is related to Sasikala, a close confidante of TN Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, which is said to have benefitted vastly after the AIADMK government came to power. Of the remaining 11 distilleries more than a few are said to have owners with connections in the DMK .

Over the years rumours have floated over the alleged connections that DMK leader TR Baalu had with Golden Vats which was owned by a close associate of his.

In 2010, the DMK-led government also sanctioned former Union minister S Jagathratchagan’s family members who owned Elite Distilleries to set up AM Breweries. Another manufacturer who got the nod was S Jayamurugan, who set up SNJ Distilleries – the man who co-produced two movies in which DMK chief Karunanidhi had written the script, reported Times of India.

So much has been the monopoly within the state that even big players have either shunned the market or given up and left for good. One that majorly faced the heat was United Spirits Ltd owned by Vijaya Mallya which had been doing spectacularly well across the country admitted defeat in TN when it made a public statement declaring that the state adopted policies benefitted only local players.

To put it in simpler terms, the government by deciding what people could and should drink, was leaning favourably towards locally-owned suppliers. According to one company official in an earlier Times of India report, every local player benefitting was in some way connected to leaders belonging to one of the big Dravidian parties.

But now with the whole alcoholism debate, as opposition parties point fingers at the government, many are distancing themselves from any association with liquor companies. Former leader T R Baalu has taken one step back from alleged connections with Golden Vats Private Ltd, a distillery which was said to be owned by associates close to him.

Producing a letter by the director of the company declaring that he was in no way related to the distillery, the move came after Baalu had been reportedly summoned to meet DMK leader Karunanidhi to explain his alleged links with distilleries in TN.

But it’s not all been bad.

For instance, long before the debate came on consumption, as far back as 2008, PMK leader Anbumani Ramadoss, as Union Health Minister, pushed for a national policy to allow regulated sale of alcohol in the country.

The Chief Ministerial candidate from the PMK for the 2016 Assembly elections, he declared that his first move if elected to power would be to introduce prohibition across the state. 

However, what’s quite interesting is the advocacy for prohibition in spite of any personal beliefs by leaders of different parties. For instance, a picture of a famous TN leader's kin made the rounds on social media in which he was portrayed carrying an alcoholic drink, presumably.

Whether they were forced to or not, the last few weeks has put not just the Tamil Nadu government in the spotlight, but leaders of other parties as well. If it has been the present government’s fault, it has been the equal silence maintained by other parties who have inadvertently played safe and tagged along.

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