The tippler’s dilemma
The announcement of the closure was initially planned on DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi’s birth anniversary. But it had been postponed until this week.
In part fulfilment of a promise made by the DMK in its poll manifesto, Tamil Nadu announced the permanent closure of 500 retail liquor shops run by Tasmac, from Thursday onward. The closure of the outlets operated by the Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation Limited (Tasmac), comes after an assurance from the erstwhile Minister for Prohibition and Excise, V Senthilbalaji on the State Legislative Assembly floor that 500 of the 5,329 retail liquor shops will be closed. The decision is being affected considering poor liquor sales in some outlets; complaints from citizens regarding outlets located near religious and educational institutions; outlets involved in court litigation; and those facing opposition from the public.
It might be recalled that in 2021-22, as many as 96 Tasmac outlets were closed down, and the latest order brings the total number of outlets to be shut to 596, which will leave the State with just about 4,829 liquor shops. The move could be read in many ways. The announcement of the closure was initially planned on DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi’s birth anniversary. But it had been postponed until this week. The closure has come about when the ruling party is being pressured by Opposition parties like the AIADMK to remove V Senthilbalaji from the Council of Ministers.
But, shutting down outlets of a cash cow such as Tasmac, which nets the government upwards of Rs 36,000 cr in annual revenues, comes with its own heartaches. The government will need to re-employ over 1,500 shop supervisors and salesmen in various alternative departments. Owing to the limited number of vacancies in other outlets in Tamil Nadu, this is going to be a hurdle for the administration. A similar issue came up in 2016-17 when the AIADMK was in power and the Supreme Court had ordered over 700 outlets adjoining highways to be shuttered. Most of the employees made redundant were unwilling to relocate to other districts or even pick up jobs in fair price outlets.
The shut down is overshadowed by concerns regarding the quality of liquor being supplied at such outlets, as well as the sale of spurious liquor/arrack brewed beyond the organised market. Only last month, over 20 people died after consuming illicit liquor in Tamil Nadu. A week after that, two men lost their lives, having allegedly consuming drinks procured from a bar attached to a Tasmac outlet in Thanjavur district — a dual embarrassment for the administration.
Downing shutters on these outlets presents a fat chance for potential customers to be weaned away from liquor. Stakeholders fear that tipplers hailing from economically-challenged backgrounds might end up seeking cheaper illicit arrack, something the government has promised to crack down on. There are also calls for closing illegal bars attached to Tasmac outlets, as well taking strict action against outlets overcharging consumers. There is the overarching angle of prohibition too that is now being voiced by Opposition parties. Leaders hope that this closure might be the beginning of a phased implementation of complete prohibition in the state. That is a big ‘if’, viewed in the light of how states with total prohibition such as Gujarat and Bihar have driven the liquor business underground in those states – resulting in massive losses to the exchequer, and episodes of spurious liquor-related deaths too.