It is one step forward and two steps back for the Left Democratic Front Government on the granting of permits for breweries and a liquor bottling plant, the second being the whole trail of defeat the hasty withdrawal of the permits left behind.
The Opposition United Democratic Front (UDF), whose earlier regime was neck-deep in trouble over bar licences, resulting in the resignation of two of its Ministers, would not have decided to plan an agitation, had it not smelt graft in the whole exercise of the present Government.
It was the LDF Government being pushed to the wall daily when Opposition Leader Ramesh Chennithala directed a step-by-step attack on the Government which saw some of its constituents unhappy and even lack of support from within the leading CPM.
The Government had been justifying its action and did so even at the last moment. At one stage Industries Minister EP Jayarajan said permits would be granted for breweries just as panchayats ‘rightfully’ granted licences to tea stalls.
The whole exercise reeked of foul acts right from the very start.
The LDF had come to power on a slogan that it would promote weaning away people from liquor. But nearly a year after coming to power, it reworked things, reopening a number of the 418 bars closed by the previous UDF Government which did so not out of principles, but to defeat a certain group in the dominant Congress.
And with the recent granting of permits, it wrongly claimed that the order of 1999 by which all previous Governments swore when denying permits for new distilleries was meant only for the applications received till that year.
But Chennithala pointed out that the note by top officials, including the excise secretary, had made clear that the 99 order would have to be nullified for granting permit.
Not only was this ignored, but also worse, the Government did not present the matter at the Cabinet or LDF committee meetings.
The applications were not properly scrutinised. While one had an address of a a small room in a town near Kochi, another had a fictitious address in New Delhi.
The government was caught on the wrong foot when it withdrew an order granting 10 acres at the Kinfra Park near Kochi claiming later that the land was not available which was substantiated by the Industries Ministry. Here too Chennithala scored when he claimed that the son of a senior CPM leader was behind the granting of the land. Quickly, party state committee leader and three-time legislator Kolliyakode Krishnan Nair's son, who is also general manager at Kinfra (his appointment in the establishment is under scrutiny with the vigilance expressing doubts about his qualification) came out publicly that he had noted that the land was available then. But the question remains whether he or the managing director is authorised to give such a statement.
Kolliyakode's niece had to bow out of the Kerala Law Academy sometime back in front of a public agitation, despite the party trying hard to protect her.
The claim of both Pinarayi and Ramakrishnan was that 40 per cent of beer and 8 per cent of liquor had to be sourced from outside the State to meet the demand. The new breweries and the distillery would help on creating 'self-sufficiency’ when the State, a consumerist one, had to depend on other States for practically everything from rice to vegetables to salt.
They also claimed that it would provide employment when most of the distilleries in the State were providing jobs to its workforce for only a fortnight during a month.
To make matters worse came the statement of party veteran VS Achuthanandan that his constituency in Palakkad be 'spared’ of a water-guzzling brewery as that belt had been declared as severely water scarce and there was an order against allowing any new plant that drew groundwater. It is estimated that a beer plant would need at least 7 litres to manufacture 1 litre of beer.
Isolating the constituents in the LDF, the Government move on breweries also did not find favour within the party. With the growing public protest over Sabarimala issue, the Government felt it could be burnt in the heat of protest over the touchy liquor issue.
The height of all this drama was the announcement by Pinarayi that there was nothing wrong in granting the permits. More would be granted later as and when applications are received and vetted under a new system. The Opposition was unnecessarily creating a smokescreen. The State was trying to rebuild itself after the recent flood and there was need to stay united and so the four permits granted recently were being cancelled.
All across Kerala will certainly take his word with a pinch of salt as 'touching’.
The Government should come clean on the matter or else the 'smokescreen’ will stay, though all can certainly see through the game.