Bangalore: Karnataka’s 10-month-old ban on arrack, or country liquor, has been at the centre of a liquor tragedy that has so far claimed 127 lives in and around the state’s capital, with political parties trading charges over whether the deaths were a fallout of the ban.
But there’s also a group of people that argue that the deaths due to the illicit brew, or hooch, have more to do with lax policing than any ban, and that the real impact of a ban on arrack would be the displacement of lakhs of families involved in its trade.
“No government has had a long-term strategy (to rehabilitate these people),” said Johnson J.Edayaranmula, spokesman for the Delhi-based Indian Alcohol Policy Initiative, a non-governmental organization, or NGO. Johnson cites the example of Kerala, where arrack sellers, who lost their jobs when the A.K. Antony-led Congress government banned the drink in 1996, were given jobs in toddy shops. Toddy is a traditional drink tapped from palm trees.
In July, Karnataka’s Janata Dal (Secular)-Bharatiya Janata Party coalition government had claimed that it banned arrack as a social measure and also because of pressure from self-help groups for women, even though the state would lose nearly Rs1,900 crore by way of revenue from arrack sales.
Officials now expect the revenue loss to be offset by increasing sales of branded liquor such as brandy and whisky, also known as Indian-Made Foreign Liquor, which has doubled to 3 million cases (each case contains 9 bulk litres) from 1.4 million cases before the ban.
The government planned to accomodate people rendered jobless by the ban in an existing industrial training programme called Suvarna Kayaka that offered a monthly stipend of Rs2,000 to every candidate.
However, the programme itself evoked a poor response. The small-scale industries that participated in this programme—the employer of an apprentice had to pay Rs750 a month towards the stipend, while the government paid the remaining sum—say the poor response was mainly because the government’s contribution always came in late.
“Initially a lot of people came forward, but the department concerned did not take it up seriously,” said K.V. Rajendra Kumar, president of the Peenya Industries Association, a body of small-scale industries. He reasons that such a low stipend will not attract candidates when they can earn more as helpers or peons in offices in Bangalore.
According to the Karnataka industries department, around 14,232 candidates (as against the target of 100,000) found employment between August 2006 and February 2008, mostly in garment factories.
“More than 200,000 families were dependant on arrack,” said Kagodu Thimmappa, a former Karnataka health minister who lost the assembly election from Sagar in Shimoga district. He contested on Congress ticket. “One should think of remedial measures also (when introducing a ban),” said Thimmappa, who belongs to the Ediga community that has traditionally been toddy tappers.
Saroja Alva, project officer of the Stree Shakti programme which works with 140,000 self-help groups in the state, feels that women are playing a bigger role in running these families. “Now, so many women are involved in income generation and they do a better job of looking after their families than men,” Alva said, adding that she didn’t quite know what was being done to rehabilitate the men involved in selling arrack.
Meanwhile, Tamil Nadu claims that nearly 1,025 people last year availed of a scheme for loans to pursue an alternate vocation. “We support (people) who want to set up a petty business and there are 49 different trades they can pursue,” said J. Radhakrishna, Tamil Nadu’s prohibition commissioner.
In the state’s Krishnagiri district, where last week’s hooch tragedy claimed 45 lives in addition to Bangalore’s 127, nearly 60 former arrack sellers applied for loans under the government scheme in 2004-05, the year arrack was banned in Tamil Nadu.
An average of 34 persons have applied for these loans to buy milch cows or set up petty shops, every year since,according to district authorities.
“It’s a slow process, but change has to be brought about,” said an official of an NGO working towards eradicating alcoholism in Krishnagiri. He didn’t want to be named because of his work among alcoholics in the area.
According to this person, seven former arrack sellers in two villages, Beddadhalapalli and Byanapalli, were given loans of Rs15,000 each to buy cows.
While one of them bought a cow and is earning Rs200 a day selling milk, another started a small business of selling plastic pots. The remaining five, this person said, cleared their debts with the money and took up menial jobs as labourers. However, they occasionally fall back to selling illicit arrack to make some quick money.
Vidhya Sivaramakrishnan in Chennai contributed to thisstory.