God’s Own Prohibitions

Kerala's banning spree

Kerala is on a banning spree, from booze on the first day of the month to peeing in public places. But life still goes on


GOING BY the growing number of bans and prohibitions imposed on the people of Kerala, the state seems to be under an unadulterated autocracy. First of all, Keralites can’t purchase alcohol on the first day of the month. Though this stricture was introduced by the Oommen Chandy-led Congress government, liquor shops are forced to down shutters on the first of each month under the hammer-and-sickle regime. Chandy had resorted to such a peculiar ban in response to the Church’s protest against the sanctioning of a number of bar-hotels in violation of norms. He had justified his decision by saying that a dry day on the first day of each month would prevent men from spending their entire salary on alcohol.

“What a stupid concept this is. Who gets salary on the first of each month in the post-globalisation period? It is high time to end such gimmicks. Even-die hard prohibitionists would not support such an unrealistic ban,’’ says Echome Gopi, a member of the Kerala Film Academy.

One of the consequences of the ban is that most of the Indian-made foreign liquor retail outlets in the state witness brisk sales on the 30th and 31st of each month. The bar-hotels also make extra profits through the backdoor selling of liquor on dry days at a higher rate. There is yet another segment of the society that benefits from the ban. PV Gopalan, an employee with a nationalised bank in Thiruvananthapuram, belongs to that segment.

Gopalan buys several bottles of liquor ahead of the dry day and sells them at a premium, including to his seniors. Jobless youth in the border villages also find it economical to buy bottles from Karnataka or Tamil Nadu and sell them in Kerala on the dry days. Mahe, which comes under Pondicherry, is a watering hole with hordes of Keralites turning up there on dry days.

Urination in public places is a punishable offence in Kerala, though a large number of people still remain unaware of this. The ban became the subject of debate a few months ago when a district judge directed the police at Thalassery near Kannur to register cases against four youngsters for urinating on the roadside. The youngsters said they were unaware of such a ban and alleged that the judge was acting out of ulterior motives.

Spitting in public places was banned only a few months ago when epidemics started claiming lives in Kottayam, Pathanamthitta and Alappuzha districts. But people are busy violating the ban in the absence of any governmental effort to provide spaces to spit.

The manufacture, retail and consumption of arrack remain banned in Kerala since the past 11 years, even though the state consumes more liquor on an average than any other Indian state. It was then Chief Minister AK Antony who banned arrack in 2006 to win votes of women in lower middle class families. Though Antony failed to win those votes, the ban is still in place and the Achuthanandan government has dared not lift it.

The ban on arrack turned counter-productive when illicit brewers replaced the government network of arrack shops. Even toddy shops are now selling arrack. “Almost all the vacant government land and many forest clearings have been turned into illegal distilleries,’’ says TC Rajesh, a journalist from Idukki. In Idukki, Wayanad and Kannur, country arrack is available easily and openly, making a mockery of the ban. At Kannarampuzha near Pulpally in Wayanad, a local farmer named Markose was seen swimming across the Kabani river holding three packets of Karnataka arrack by his teeth.

“There is no other Indian state with such a number of bans. Successive governments are banning a number of public habits. In fact, the impractical bans are making people law breakers,’’ observes PA Pouran, president of the Kerala unit of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties. IT WAS only a fortnight back that the Achuthanandan government banned plastic carrybags without suggesting any substitutes. Shops now simply hide the carrybags and bring them out promptly if one makes that request.

“When I was in Paris, the civic authorities had banned plastic there. My family had started importing cotton carrybags from India within days of the ban and they were sold in the market for higher prices after affixing prints of my paintings on them. Such initiatives are required in Kerala as well. Plastic ban is welcome but the government must teach people to use cloth and paper bags,’’ suggests noted artist Paris Mohan Kumar.

One of the first actions of Achuthanandan after assuming power was to ban Coca-Cola and Pepsi in the state. That decision came in the wake of the agitation of the people of Plachimada in Palakkad against exploitation of their drinking water by the cola companies. The Kerala High Court later overturned the ban. Kerala was the first state to ban politics on campuses of high schools but no government school in the state remains free from the influence of organised politics now.

The ban on smoking in public places is still in force but the police itself openly flout the law. Most of the law enforcers in the state are habitual smokers, they just can’t implement the ban.

Imposing a ban on driving a two-wheeler without a helmet has turned into an annual ritual. For a specific period every year there is a drive launched against violators, which results in an increase in the sale of helmets. Soon, however, the combing operation is ended. Driving cars without wearing the seat-belt was also banned but the government has told the police not to harass violators.

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