India. Prohibition: The only wave in Tamil Nadu

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For the first time since Tamil Nadu took complete control of liquor retail and converted the monopoly into its chief money-spinner that contributes nearly Rs 27,000 crore to the state’s coffers, the main Dravidian political parties have been forced into acknowledging that the policy of promoting liquor has had serious consequences for the health of the people and the social fabric.

All four main political fronts, the AIADMK, DMK, the six-party People’s Welfare Front, and the Pattali Makkal Katchi, have promised to bring in prohibition, with the AIADMK, the architect of the monopoly on liquor retail in 2003, only differing in the details. The party says instead of the overnight ban that the others have pledged, it will phase it out in “stages”.

This Tamil Nadu village bordering Pondicherry is a study in why liquor has become the main talking point of this election, why the promise of prohibition became necessary, how tough it will be to implement it, and why people find it hard to believe that it will become a reality.

It is barely 11 am under a white May sun. Sitting under the shaded platform of the village square, Dara Singh Gounder, named after the wrestler, talks about his one passion: alcohol.

“I can’t live without it. My life is dependent on alcohol. Even the doctors have told me that I need to drink to survive,” the cashew farmer says. The 60-year-old has already had three “quarters” – 180 ml – and says he spends Rs 100 daily on drink.

“We are farmers. If we don’t drink, we can’t work. A farmer’s work is hard work,’ he says.

His friend Tamizhan says he drinks for “enjoyment”, spending like Dara Singh, at least Rs 100 a day.

Another of their friends, M. Thandavarayan, reels off the rates for a “quarter” of every brand that is available in the shops.

Ayyannar, a 37-year-old former kabbadi player joins the conversation and says he left sports for alcohol many years ago. “I drink for enjoyment, for jolly,” he says.

A couple of hundred metres away, Selvi, the head of a self-help group of 1,500 women, says the promise of prohibition must be kept.

Most of the men in of the men in three villages that fall under one panchayat are alcohol addicts and do no productive work.

Her husband Ranganathan is the panchayat president, and Dara Singh Gounder is her brother-in-law.

“My husband also drinks. He’s not violent but for most women it’s causing a lot of family problems. It’s the women that are suffering the most. Every woman wants prohibition. Their husbands do not give them even a quarter of their earnings, they have to struggle to educate and feed their children, the men come home drunk, beat the wives, it’s all too much,” says Selvi.

A woman in her self-help group whose 24-year-old son’s kidneys have both packed up, Selvi says. The mother spends Rs 2000 a week on dialysis.

Shanthi, who works at the nearby Auroville health centre, says she borrowed Rs 11,000 from the centre to take her husband to a rehabilitation centre after “the drink did something to his brain” – he became violent and delirious.

In the seven months since, he has not gone back to liquor, but that remains Shanthi’s biggest fear.

“Out of 1,500 men, maybe only 20 people are not drinking. The rest of them are at it,” she says.

Back in the village square, the men explain why prohibition is a bad idea.

“It will drive people to drink illicit liquor,” said Thandavarayan. “And there will always be other places to get booze”.

Indeed, even now, the village has no liquor shops of its own, but the union territory of Pondicherry, a five-minute drive in any direction, is bursting at the seams with private alcohol retailers that have always stocked more variety than TASMAC, Tamil Nadu government’s liquor marketing arm, and without the high taxes.

This is also why on weekends, Pondicherry sees a spike in alcohol tourists from Chennai. The East Coast Road from Chennai to Pondicherry is notorious for fatal accidents caused mostly by drunken driving.

Across Tamil Nadu, the sight of men passed out in front of the shops and the scrum at the counter to buy the booze has caused widespread anger against TASMAC shops. Small neighbourhood protests have erupted against the shops in some places, forcing the government to shift them.

But unlike in many other states, Tamil Nadu has seen no protests by women for prohibition, no campaign against liquor led by women activists. Neither has there been health or socio-economic audit of the costs of alcohol addiction.

The demand for it crept in almost like silent tsunami, forcing every party to include it at the top of their manifesto, with each now claiming that it was the first to raise it.

In contrast to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, when liquor flowed as smoothly as the speeches at rallies, the Assembly elections have not contributed to the TASMAC economy in the same way as Narendra Modi’s two rallies, one in Vandalur, and another in Trichy did.

While PMK founder V. Ramadoss has been raising the demand for prohibition for close to two decades now, the turning point came last year when Sashi Perumal, an anti-liquor campaigner from Erode fell to his death from a lamppost he climbed during a protest against TASMAC shops in Nagercoil.

The DMK jumped to declare that if elected, it would bring in prohibition. Vaiko, Vijayakanth and Dalit leader Thol Thirumavalavan were quick to jump on the bandwagon. The PMK said it had always said prohibition was necessary. The AIADMK was the last to climb aboard, and has kept the promise ambiguous.

In this village of AIADMK voters, say it is common to find a dozen or so men passed out under the MGR statue every evening ,the women say their complaints to their local representatives have fallen on deaf years for so long, that they are surprised at the sudden empathy.

“I am sure they are doing it for some selfish reasons, otherwise it is difficult to understand this,” said Selvi. “If they are saying that they can bring in prohibition the day after they come to power, why didn’t they do it for so long?”

But both men and women say that “Amma has made the best promise” – the men seeing in it a promise that she does not intend to keep, the women saying “a stage by stage prohibition” is more realistic than the promise of an overnight ban.

But DMK may hope to have won over at least some sections of women voters, traditionally an AIADMK vote bank, with its unambiguous promise.

Ramu Mannivannan, a political analyst and Madras University professor said what brought prohibition centre stage in this election is that both AIADMK and DMK have made huge money from liquor sales. Favoured private companies got contracts to supply liquor to TASMAC.

“Though all are promising prohibition, it may not be possible for them to bring it in in the way they are promising now, but the promises may help to rationalize the liquor policy and set up some reasonable standards,” said Manivannan.

A. R Venkatachalapathy of Madras Institute of Development Studies is not that optimistic. “Even if prohibition comes in, there is bound to be a huge hooch tragedy, and whoever is the chief minister will announce that ‘with a heavy heat and tears in my eyes, I am signing this order to lift the liquor ban’, he said.