At one point, prohibition on arrack, toddy and Indian made foreign liquor was lifted; later, the State-owned Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation (TASMAC) was founded. Since 2002, TASMAC has monopoly over sale of alcohol in Tamil Nadu. Prohibition is now a mockery, given the sheer number of TASMAC shops.
Popular discontentment over the rise of alcoholism had risen to such an extent that prohibition became one of the most contentious issues in the 2016 elections. All major parties promised to implement prohibition if elected to power. AIADMK promised to implement prohibition in a phased manner and close TASMAC shops progressively.
J Jayalalithaa, on assuming charge as the Chief Minister announced that she will close 500 TASMAC shops and phase out the others slowly. The present Chief Minister Edappadi Palanisamy also promised to close 500 more TASMAC out-lets on his assumption of his office. Thus, the ruling and the Opposition parties are at a rare point of consensus regarding prohibition.
While paying lip-service to prohibition, the government of Tamil Nadu has refused to actively close down TASMAC shops due to the revenue that they yield to the State. TASMAC is the one of the biggest sources of revenue for the government. Prominent persons from the ruling party as well as the opposition political parties are beneficiaries of the liquor business.
The Supreme Court on its part has, taking into account the number of road accidents that occur due to drunken driving, passed a sweeping order to close down all liquor shops within 500 meters of distance from the National and State Highways. This has led to several debates on the issue of feasibility of relocation of the TASMAC shops.
Concerned about the monetary losses that the Supreme Court order may bring about, the powers that be are rushing to relocate TASMAC shops and bars that are located near the Highways. The state machinery is being used liberally for helping the bigwigs in liquor trade.
Disturbed by the relocation from Highways to residential and other non-viable areas, local neighbourhood protests have been on the rise all over Tamil Nadu. Popular protests have been breaking out to close down or stop attempts to open TASMAC shops near their places of residence,
schools, places of worship etc.
Women, who are the worst affected due to alcoholism have gathered in large numbers to come out in the open and protest against the liquor lobby. Not knowing how to handle these silent protesters, cops in Tamil Nadu are indulging in unlawful means of throttling peaceful protesters. Right to peaceful assembly is a fundamental right guaranteed in our Constitution. But our state police does not acknowledge the fundamental rights of our citizens to protest. Several instances of police violence against peaceful protesters have been noted by the media in the past weeks. The most recent instance was when the Tamil Nadu police unleashed violence by lathi charging women protesters demanding closure of a liquor shop in Tiruppur in a peaceful manner. Some of the police officers threatened to use force by hitting the lathis near the feet of the protesters.
Later, the Additional Superintendent of Police of Tiruppur, Pandiarajan, was caught on camera pushing a woman and slapping her. Such an instance of brutality is not an isolated incident. The police has a long-standing history of muzzling protest with physical force and violence, even when there was no imminent threat to law and order. The atrocious violence unleashed on the jallikattu protesters a few months ago comes to mind. The government claims that investigation has commenced against the offending official. However, the government does not have an impressive record of punishing its errant police officers. Police violence is often met with impunity. Investigative agencies and independent monitoring agencies including the National Human Rights Commission and its State counterparts are mute spectators.
- The writer is Senior Advocate, Madras High Court