The controversy over the Kerala Government sanctioning distilleries has started pushing the ruling CPIM-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) to the defensive. Excise Minister TP Ramakrishnan was found fumbling to answer sharp questions from Opposition Leader Ramesh Chennithala, saying they would be answered later.
It was very recently that the Excise Ministry gave Power Infratech to put up a brewery in Kinfra Industrial Park at Kakkanad in Kochi for which 10 acres was allotted. Incidentally, there is still no clarity on this as Kinfra does not have such land. Earlier, permits were granted to Apollo Distilleries and Breweries, Palakkad, and Sreedharan Distilleries, Kannur. Another firm Sree Chakra Distilleries got the sanction to set up a blending and bottling plant at Perumbavoor in Kochi for manufacture of Indian-Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL).
Since 1999, no government in the State had granted such a permit. The claim made by the Government now was that around 40 per cent of beer consumption in the State was met by supply from other States. Like prompting agriculture to attain self-sufficiency in food production, this too has such an angle. Moreover, Minister Ramakrishnan claimed that it would also be a job-generator.
When the previous Congress-led UDF closed down bars in the State which had mainly been due to schism in the Congress, the LDF during its election campaign said it was not for opening bars which were swallowed by voters.
And soon things started to change and many of the bars started opening with some additional star status. And the claim of the CPM was that it was not for prohibition but reduction in alcohol consumption.
But consumption has not come down. During 2017-18, the State consumed 20.8 million cases of IMFL and 11.5 million cases of beer, taking the per capita annual consumption to over 8 litres. Though this may left tipplers unsteady, government revenue showed steady growth. And a variety of liquor taxes accounted for some 30 per cent of the 2017-18 own tax revenue of Rs 37,850 crore.
And when the State reeled under the recent devastating floods, the government went ahead with the sanction of three breweries and a blending unit which it claimed was on the basis of established rules and procedures and even going by its liquor policy. The UDF, which was shattered by graft charges over liquor deals during its regime earlier and saw the heads of two ministers roll, has now smelt graft in the latest deals.
To add strength came the comment by Kanam Rajendran, CPI state secretary of the second leading party in the LDF that the matter was not taken up at the LDF committee or the Cabinet meetings. Chennithala wanted Ramakrishnan to explain what the Government's excise policy was. Also, it had to make clear whether applications were invited and what was the reason for the previous LDF Governments under EK Nayanar and VS Achuthanandan to reject the application of some of them who have now been granted permit.
The Government should explain whether there has been study about sufficient water supply in the area, especially Palakkad, Chennithala said.
Incidentally, the CPIM was part of the successful agitation against the Coca Cola in the Palakkad hamlet of Plachimada during early 2000. From drawing gallons of water illegally and also polluting the area, the charges were galore against the soft drink behemoth, leading to the factory lockout in 2004 and finally relinquishing its licence later. It was a historic 12-year-long struggle for water. Issues regarding draining of water by other breweries in the drought-prone areas had been taken up earlier. And it is here that another brewery has been given the licence.
The minister has failed to explain how the permits were granted. This lack of transparency makes the issue have the possibility of growing serious controversy like the bargate scam during the previous UDF regime.