Tipplers in India’s liquor-loving state of Kerala could have cause to celebrate soon. Gauging the public mood, the Left Democratic Front government in the state, in all likelihood, will allow the reopening of bars that were not allowed to serve hard liquor after the previous regime imposed a phased ban on alcohol in Kerala.

The first signs of a new policy in-the-making came last week, when state Tourism Minister AC Moideen spoke in favour of the reopening of bars in and around tourist areas, saying that the ban had dealt a big blow to the tourism revenue in the state.

“The previous government’s excise policy has resulted in the negative growth of the tourism industry,” he told a press conference in Thiruvananthapuram on August 18. “So the government should act immediately. Liquor should be made available at bars located in and around tourism destinations.”

A day before Moideen’s press conference, excise minister TP Ramakrishnan had said the state would review the existing excise policy as it had not had the desired effect of reducing alcohol consumption in the state.

Survey findings

In 2014, the United Democratic Front government, with a view towards complete prohibition by 2024, had sought to ban liquor in a phased manner. At present, only five-star hotels in the state can serve alcohol and 10% of the state’s retail liquor outlets are being shut down annually. The Supreme Court upheld the ban in December last year.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led LDF government, however, which came to power in May, has been indicating over the last few months that it will review the ban.

Moideen and Ramakrishnan’s recent statements give credence to this, as both of them are senior CPM leaders who are privy to major policy decisions that the government is contemplating.

Besides, Moideen's statement shows how the government is planning to use the results of Kerala Tourism Trade Survey July 2016, that were released earlier this month, to tilt the public opinion in its favour.

Conducted by the state department of tourism, the survey looked into trends in tourist arrivals and the state’s growth as a destination for MICE business (Meetings, Incentives, Conferencing and Exhibitions) and weddings, based on feedback from owners and managers of hotels and resorts, and tour operators.

A majority of the survey respondents blamed the excise policy as the biggest factor affecting tourist arrivals and MICE business. “The New Excise Policy has dented the fortunes and scope of the MICE industry in a major way,” the survey said. “Respondents mentioned instances where big events were cancelled because of the excise policy.”

Little wonder, then, that a change in the liquor policy topped the list of suggestions by respondents.

Shot in the arm

If the government is keen on withdrawing the liquor ban, the survey findings will help its cause.

State Director of Tourism UV Jose told Scroll.in that it was the first trade survey conducted by his department. “We decided to undertake the trade survey after we noticed reports in the media about negative trends in the tourism sector,” he said. “Many of those reports indicated that the industry is going through a rough phase thanks to the excise policy, stiff competition, and higher rates. We wanted to get exact data.”

Jose said the government has taken the survey findings seriously. “The survey indicates the relation between the excise policy and tourism growth. The tourism minister has already discussed the findings with the excise minister.”

Kerala has traditionally been one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations, known for its rich culture, festivals, beaches and backwaters.

Jose said that Kerala’s tourist identity will take a big hit if the government fails to modify the liquor policy soon. “I am not saying that the industry will collapse if the policy is not changed,” he said. “But we will lose the upper hand we enjoy in the market and this will force us to focus on other areas.”

Testing the waters

While speaking about the likelihood of reviewing the excise policy, excise minister Ramakrishnan had said that prohibition had not helped reduce liquor consumption in the state.

“The marginal fall in liquor sales through Kerala State Beverages Corporation outlets cannot be inferred as a decrease in alcohol consumption,” he said. “The state has registered a 62% increase in sales of beer and wine.” In another hint that the ban was likely to be relaxed, if not rolled back, he said the LDF government was in favour of abstinence, not prohibition. He said the smuggling of alcohol from nearby states and union territories had increased.

He called the long queues in front of state-owned liquor outlets “a disgrace to the state.”

The government operates alcohol outlets under the Kerala State Beverages Corporation and Kerala State Co-operatives Consumers’ Federation Limited, or Consumerfed.

In a peculiar sequence of events earlier this month, Consumerfed chairman M Mehboob had on August 18 said that the agency would start online liquor sales during the 10-day Onam festival in the state, to counter these long queues. But less than 12 hours later, the state government rejected the move that had already been widely reported by then.

Many believe this was a deliberate move to test the waters before changing the excise policy. “The assertions clearly indicate that the government will change excise policy before Onam,” said M Damodaran, convenor of Kerala Alcohol Consumers’ Protection Committee, a two-year-old organisation that enjoys the patronage of famous writers and activists.

At present, only 23 five-star hotels serve alcohol in the state. As many as 730 bars in three- and four-star establishments have stopped serving hard liquor over the last two years (418 in 2014 and 312 in 2015).

Biju Ramesh, President of Kerala Bar Hotel Owners Association, said that apart from tourism, the government should also think of Kerala natives while drafting the new excise policy. “Common people have been deprived of the pleasure of drinking in the comforts of a bar at reasonable rates since 2014,” he said. “I hope the government will allow all bars that meet specific quality standards to serve alcohol.”