Every election cycle in Tamil Nadu sees the re-emergence of prohibition as an important issue. While in 2016, both Dravidian parties assured a phased prohibition, this time, the DMK has dropped the promise from its manifesto, claiming that the demand isn’t as popular as it is made out to be. It is no secret that TN’s finances are heavily dependent on revenue from liquor, with well over Rs 30,000 crore in recent years coming from the TASMAC, which handles the retail sale of liquor in the state. At the same time, it is no secret that there is an alcohol problem in TN, and indeed the country at large.
According to a 2019 report commissioned by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, about 2.9 crore people nationally are dependent on alcohol, while in TN, the figure is estimated to be around 37 lakh. About 14.2% of people in the age group of 10-75 in the state consume alcohol but the figure rises to 28.5% when it comes to only men. With alcohol abuse being linked to domestic violence, it is no surprise that prohibition is a promise targeted at women voters.
However, data and history from across the world show that prohibition is a failed policy. One way forward has been mentioned by actor-turned politician Kamal Haasan, the founder of the Makkal Needhi Maiam, which is leading a third front in these polls. He has suggested that the state get out of the retail business of alcohol. This pinpoints a fundamental paradox in TN’s liquor policy.
Since the TASMAC took on retail sales in 2003, the state government is in the position of both controlling and marketing liquor, effectively putting government wings at odds. At the same time, despite alcoholism being identified as a mental illness and youngsters turning to booze from a young age, expenditure on de-addiction and alcohol awareness/education services are but a minuscule fraction of the state’s budget. Rather than attempting to impose prohibition—that will also hit revenue streams—TN might be better served in disengaging from the retail business and focusing on enforcement, de-addiction and alcohol education.