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India counts the cost of trying to solve its drinking problem

Campaigners say alcohol abuse fuels violence towards women and girls in India. But how would the state cope without funds from liquor sales?

By the time the liquor store on Kalavasah Teni road in the south Indian city of Madurai opens for business at 10am on Monday, a small queue of regular customers has already begun to form outside.

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Within minutes, bottles fly off the shelves. By the end of the day, the shop will have sold about 600 bottles of alcohol and made about 100,000 rupees (£1,000). On bank holidays or during religious festivals, sales can be 10 times that amount.

The Kalavasah Teni shop is one of 6,800 in Tamil Nadu, and is controlled by a government-run organisation called Tasmac, which has a state-wide monopoly on alcohol sales.

Tasmac has seen an increase in revenue every year since 2003, when alcohol sales were taken over by the government. In 2014-15, Tasmac took in about 24,000 crore rupees (£2.4bn), more than a quarter of the state’s total income for the year.

Before Tasmac, alcohol was a taboo, and people had to travel to obscure places to buy it. In the past decade, the government has opened Tasmac shops across the state, even next to schools, temples and in residential areas. As a result, alcoholism is spreading. Rates of divorce, street crime and domestic violence are rising.

According to the World Health Organisation, nearly one in 20 Indian men have an addiction or alcohol-related disorder.

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But now, chief minister Jayalalithaa, who introduced the monopoly in 2003, has promised to phase out alcohol sales completely after violent anti-alcohol clashes in the run-up to last month’s state elections. Since her swearing-in ceremony at the end of May, she has already announced that Tasmac’s retail hours will be reduced, and 500 stores closed.

In 2014, the neighbouring southern state of Kerala started phasing out alcohol, and this year, Bihar, one of India’s most populous states, declared an overnight liquor ban. Prohibition has been implemented to varying degrees in many states including Gujarat and Manipur, and Tamil Nadu has a history of periodically banning the bottle.

Nandhini Anandhan, a 24-year-old law student from Madurai, is at the forefront of a massive student movement in favour of prohibition in Tamil Nadu. She and more than 200 students from Madurai Law College have linked with students in all the major cities of Tamil Nadu to coordinate protests in response to alcohol abuse among young people.

“Nowadays, it’s not only college students – kids start drinking as early as year nine [age 13 to 14],” Anandhan says. “The government has ruined three generations.”

At Sellur Vattara Kalinjiyam, a women’s rights organisation in Madurai, almost all the women have a sister, neighbour or friend with a story about alcohol abuse.

At its headquarters, dozens of volunteers have been collecting signatures to urge the government to close all Tasmac shops. More than 5,000 people have signed the petition so far.

One of the women, Savitri (many people in the region use one name), says: “My husband earns 500 rupees a day. From that, he gives me only 50 rupees for the household expenses. If I ask for more, he shouts at me and beats me. My older sister has the same problem. Her husband hits her and the children when he’s drunk.

“When our sons see their fathers, they start drinking too – these are school kids. We want a total ban, and if the promises of the election are not met, we will go and start a riot,” she says.

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For some women, easy access to alcohol has made public spaces inaccessible. One woman, Rajeshwari, says she avoids walking on roads with Tasmac shops. “The men stand outside the shop, crowded together. If we try to walk past them, they shout rude things. I don’t feel safe walking alone. Sometimes I change my route completely, just to avoid them.”

But outlawing the sale of alcohol will not be easy. Politicians have close ties to the alcohol industry in Tamil Nadu. Both Jayalalithaa’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party and the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party have given licences to produce alcohol to close aides.

The alcohol ban raises questions about how the state plans to continue funding public services without cash from Tasmac shops.

Among the concerns is whether cuts will be made to services to protect women.

“There is no evidence from any country in the world, or any state of India, that prohibition directly contributes to the reduction of violence against women,” says Vikram Patel, an academic at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

“Even if it did, it would be the equivalent to banning cars to address road traffic accidents,” he says.

“Policies that combat the deep-rooted gender inequality in India, for example through empowering women with sexual and reproductive rights, must remain the most important strategy to reduce violence against women.”

Dr K Jothi Sivagnanam, an economist at the University of Madras, says the reason a decision to ban alcohol took so long is because of the contribution sales make to public and private revenue. A slow implementation of prohibition will buy time to find alternative revenues. “[The government] have a few options to collect revenue to replace that income. Their commercial tax department has huge scope to collect VAT on large business transactions. Stamp and registration duty has also been low because of undervaluation,” he says.

But he says, after the promises, the government will need to close Tasmac shops sooner rather than later, “or else the opposition parties will use this against them in the next election”.

The Guardian has made many attempts to contact the Tamil Nadu government for comment but no response had been received at time of publication.

13 Jun. 2016

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