The women had pinned their hopes on CM Kumaraswamy but various factors are at play, from a liquor lobby & huge revenues to even history being against them.
Bengaluru: Over the past couple of weeks in Karnataka, the Congress-JD(S) coalition has been attempting to keep its flock together, fending off attempts by the opposition BJP to wrest power. But some 200 kilometres from the state’s power centre of the Vidhan Soudha in Bengaluru, there was more trouble brewing for the coalition government.
On 19 January, more than 2,000 women, fed up by the alcoholism afflicting their families, began a padayatra (protest march) from Chitradurga, demanding the imposition of prohibition in Karnataka. By 27 January, the women, who had created a stir along the way, reached the Vidhan Soudha.
The women had held hope of action as Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy had, during his earlier stint, paid heed to a similar demand, when in 2006, he had banished country liquor as well as single-digit lotteries from the state.
This time, however, Kumaraswamy was unrelenting, ruling out prohibition.
A number of reasons are behind the flat refusal. For one, there is speculation that the chief minister is under pressure from the rather infamous liquor lobby of Karnataka. Particularly, as his coalition partner, the Congress, has a history of pandering to the sector.
Then there is the question of economics — the state rakes in huge revenues from the liquor industry.
If that wasn’t enough, there is the weight of history. Prohibition has never succeeded in southern India, with even the states that implemented it having had to reverse it later.
The liquor lobby
The liquor lobby has always been a force to reckon with in Karnataka, particularly ruling the roost in the 1980s and 1990s.
From tax evasion through the sale of ‘seconds’ to having a say in the day-to-day politics, the liquor lobby was allegedly everywhere in those times, an all-pervasive force that penetrated every level of the government.
The ‘seconds’ liquor was a euphemism for liquor bottles on which excise tax was not paid even though they carried the seal of the excise department. The money earned was allegedly utilised by the liquor lobby to patronise political parties.
Efforts to curb this lobby had failed. The most spectacular being the overturning of former chief minister Veerendra Patil’s efforts. In 1989, Patil had made it mandatory for manufacturers to sell their stock to the state-owned Mysore Sales International Limited (MSIL), thereby avoiding direct sales. He also raised the price of rectified spirit from Rs 2 to Rs 20 a litre.
But Patil suffered a stroke in October 1990 and Karnataka saw the unprecedented removal of a chief minister of the Congress party at the airport by then party president Rajiv Gandhi. Patil’s successor, S. Bangarappa, who was considered closer to the liquor lobby, promptly lowered the price of rectified spirit and even cut taxes on beer.
The next challenge to the lobby came in 2003 when chief minister S.M. Krishna, buoyed by the success of the IT industry in the state, finally had the support he required to take on the liquor giants. In one fell swoop, he created the Karnataka State Beverages Corporation Limited (KSBCL), thereby channelising the distribution of liquor in the state.
“The liquor lobby lost its power once the S.M. Krishna government set up the Karnataka Beverages Corporation, and the sale of seconds got stopped,” said a minister in the then Krishna government. “The state’s excise revenue went up by almost 50 per cent.”
Loss to the exchequer
Then there is the question of economics.
A senior politician, on the condition of the anonymity, said the number could be in crores of rupees. “I cannot say it publicly now, but the fact is that the prospect of imposing prohibition just doesn’t exist,” the politician said. “Our revenues from liquor sales are close to Rs 20,000 crore. No state will commit financial suicide by imposing prohibition at this point in time.”
In February 2017, during the state assembly election campaign, then chief minister Siddaramaiah was confronted by the protesting women at a meeting in Sindhanur in Raichur district where Congress president Rahul Gandhi was also present.
Siddaramaiah had ruled out prohibition even then, saying it was impractical.
“We have seen prohibition failing in Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, and other states. Prohibition can be a success only if it is implemented all across the country,” he had then said. “Convince Prime Minister Narendra Modi to have a national policy on prohibition and Karnataka will fully support the move.”
Not successful in South India
Siddaramaiah’s argument was not without substance — prohibition has not succeeded in any of the southern states.
The late N.T. Rama Rao dramatically signed a prohibition order in Andhra Pradesh soon after his swearing-in ceremony in 1983. It was a promise he had made in the Telugu Desam Party’s first-ever election manifesto. It was the party’s response to the massive demonstrations by women against licensing of liquor shops by previous governments.
A similar campaign but on a lower scale became a subtle political campaign against the then UDF government, headed by chief minister Oommen Chandy, in Kerala. But he subverted it by banning hard liquor while permitting beer and wine parlours.
In both states, successive governments reversed the liquor bans, largely because it impacted their financial resources.
Late Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa stood firm in her stand despite protests saying that the social welfare programmes, better known as populist programmes, were dependent upon revenues from liquor sales.
In fact, most southern states utilise revenue accruing from the sale of liquor for such programmes.
In Karnataka, for instance, consumption of liquor has grown by 77 per cent and revenue for the excise department has grown by 273 per cent in the last decade. But the social welfare programmes have also grown in size, forcing state governments to not even think of imposing prohibition.
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