It was in 1920 that the great social reformer Sree Narayana Guru made a fervent call to the Kerala society, on the occasion of his 64th birthday, to do everything it can to shun liquor. ‘Madyam vishamanu, athundakkaruthu, kodukkaruthu, kudikkarathu.’ (Liquor is poison, don’t make it, don’t give it, don’t drink it).
Now, with only three years to go for the Centenary of that historic call, we have a society that is overwhelmingly as languid, as inebriated , as lethargic as the ‘Lotos Eaters’ of Lord Tennyson’s famous poem, and willing to go any length and pay any price for its daily booze. We also have a state government that is totally, and shamelessly, dependent on liquor sales for its very sustenance financially.
As in the case of any great advice from any great seer, Narayana Guru’s impassioned plea also fell on deaf ears. Of course there were many individuals and organizations and political outfits that quoted, misquoted, supported or buttressed the Guru’s clarion call for a liquor free society, but all of them without exception did everything in their capacity to flout it in every way possible. Successive governments gave a free hand for the no-holds-barred expansion of the liquor trade, finding in it a goldmine, a great source of sure, burgeoning revenue. And they disregarded whatever evil it did to ruin the families and thereby ruin the society at large.
In the wake of the Supreme Court decision banning liquor sales outlets on national and state highways, there is now a crisis of sorts both in the Kerala society and the government. The sudden closure of bars and other retail outlets on the major roadways saw a huge spurt in the number of people crowding in front of government outlets elsewhere selling liquor. The queues in front of the government owned Beverages Corporation’s stores have always been long and winding, but in recent days the crowds in front of the stores at most places are so large as to cause major traffic congestions. Braving the unbearable heat of the blazing sun, the people, from all walks of life and of all ages, from eighteen year olds to nonagenarians, are prepared to wait it out for their turn for getting the daily pint.
If this is the way sections of the society are reacting to this situation, we have a Finance Minister, Thomas Isaac, who unabashedly wails that the Supreme Court decision is causing a shortfall of Rs 5,000 crore in the state’s revenue. The Rs 5,000 crore he mentions constitutes only the excise duty and sales tax receivable by the government. Consider then the total volume of sales, which will be worth several times this. Will that not be in effect a great gain for the thousands and thousands of families in the state?
The Kerala Government is considering measures to mount pressure on the Supreme Court in a desperate bid to get a reprieve at least for a few months for the implementation of the court order. But will it consider measures on a long-term basis to find alternative sources of revenue so as to depend less and less on liquor that Narayana Guru dubbed as ‘poison’? Kerala has a good crop of genuine and self-styled economists, including its Finance Minister who was formerly with the Centre for Development Studies. The present Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan also vaunts a Kerala born Harvard Professor as his Economic Adviser. Can’t they all direct their academic brilliance to find better sources of revenue for the Government than the tipplers and boozers of all hues?
There was a time when Kerala was a role model for other states in many respects. But the state that once flaunted itself as ‘God’s Own Country’ in a worldwide blitzkrieg of publicity, now attracts only derision and sarcasm from the international media because of it being a tippler’s paradise. The Los Angeles Times proclaimed four years ago in a special article: ‘Liquor is the Lifeblood of India's Kerala State.’ Its sub-heading went like this: ‘Per-capita consumption is the nation's highest. Bars open at 9 a.m. and lines snake outside liquor stores, from which the government earns big money.’
Taking a dig at Kerala on its hackneyed publicity caption, it said: ‘Laid-back Kerala, with its swaying palms, ancient culture and well-educated people, promotes itself to visitors as "God's own country," but some say the god of choice is Bacchus, the Roman deity of wine.’
In March 2013 The Economist ran a feature on ‘Drinking in Kerala’ under the title: Rum, Rum,Everywhere. Can Kerala cut down on its boozing?
This is surely a question the Ministers and other Government leaders in Kerala have to ask themselves, not any foreign journalist visiting the state and finding the situation here rather disturbing and disgusting.