In Tamil Nadu, Liquor Sales Are Churning a Blood Economy

Let down by their government, and now by the Supreme Court, the women of the state are bracing themselves for more violence and suffering.

At 10 am on May 7,  TASMAC  liquor shops reopened across Tamil Nadu after being shut during the lockdown. Barely an hour later,  Ananthi (name changed) from Sathanur panchayat, Tanjavur district called AIDWA’s Domestic Violence helpline.

Sounds of her helpless screams and of children crying in the background pierced through the call. Ananthi was at the end of her limits as her daily wage agri-labourer husband – who had spent 40 days without alcohol – came home drunk and had turned the cooking gas up, threatening to kill them all. AIDWA arranged for immediate coordination and help rushed to the spot.

At Alanganallur, Sivakumar stole the money set aside to buy food for the family to buy alcohol. Watching the heated argument between drunken husband Sivakumar and wife Paremeswari, their 18-year-old daughter Archana set herself ablaze with kerosene. Parameswari, who rushed to douse the flames, was severely burnt. Their cries tore through the streets of Alanganallur. Both mother and daughter battled for life while Sivakumar ran away.

At Kariyapatti, Virudhunagar, another daily wage labourer demanded money from his wife for alcohol consumption. After arguing and abusing his wife, he hanged himself. On the same day at Virudhunagar, an 80-year-old man was hacked to death by his drunken son over a property dispute. On the second day of TASMAC’s reopening, a mere argument over a game of cards among friends at Srivilluputhur who had consumed alcohol resulted in a murder.

From different parts of the state calls started pouring in on May 7 to the helpline numbers circulated by AIDWA. The voices of wailing women facing violent alcoholic men kept coming in throughout the day. Women facing the sudden turmoil at home after 40 days of non-alcoholic lockdown and throttling economic pressure called in from varied scenarios seeking help.

When the Tamil Nadu state government on May 4 announced the opening of the state-run monopoly liquor outlets TASMAC during the period of the ongoing lockdown (with the exception of the Greater Chennai Police limits), it faced a barrage of criticism. From the opposition parties to multiple movements and political outfits, everyone wanted liquor shops to remain shut. On May 6, AIDWA activists met with corporation officials in many districts and submitted petitions demanding TASMAC remain shut.  Online protests with placards, and protests from the doorsteps of homes by people wearing black clothes were also held to press the same demand.

However, the state government went ahead and reopened liquor shops on May 7. While some came out on the roads to protest, there were also groups of women who risked infection and staged dharnas in front of TASMAC shops demanding they be closed. By the end of the day TASMAC, had made a whopping collection of Rs 170 crore in liquor sales. But in less than 24 hours of their reopening, the state also recorded murders, attempted murders, drunk and drive accidents, multiple violent brawls, a spike in domestic violence – in which an estimated 10 people were killed.

A major reason cited by the state government for reopening liquor stores was that people from Tamil Nadu were reportedly going to neighbouring states like Karnataka and Andhra to buy alcohol. Another reason mentioned was the rise in the number of households brewing home alcohol. On the evening of May 8, following the violation of conditions imposed by the court like maintaining social distancing and other safety measures, the Madras high court ordered TASMAC to shutter its shops for the duration of the lockdown. On May 9, the Tamil Nadu government rushed to the Supreme Court to appeal this order.

It is widely known that the state relies on TASMAC revenue to balance its books. With the coronavirus pandemic adding to demands for government expenditure, many of the state’s ongoing schemes depend on this revenue. Except for a slight slide in between, TASMAC’s annual revenue has been on a steady rise for the past five financial years. For FY 2019 – 2020, the target of Rs 31,000 crore was almost achieved. On March 24, a day before the beginning of the first phase of the lockdown, TASMAC made a record sale of Rs 210 crore within six hours and Rs 220 crore the day before the Janata Curfew.

Since 1983, when the then chief minister M.G. Ramachandran established TASMAC, the government-run company has been disrupting the lives of millions in Tamil Nadu. Even as TASMAC grew to be a major revenue generator for the exchequer, it wrecked families and lives. The business and politics surrounding the existence of TASMAC is such that both the Dravidian parties – AIADMK and DMK –  are not interested in any change.

As the trend of consumption of alcohol kept growing along with the growth of TASMAC over the years, the class gap between consumers has also grown. While the middle class lifestyle has seen an increase in social drinking, the daily labourer consumes liquor to ease his pain after a long day’s work. The state makes sure to cater for the smallest budget with appropriately sized packets and bottles capable of delivering a high. This well planned attention to affordability of quality and quantity for each class of consumer has kept the TASMAC wheel running, churning a blood economy.

As the world came to a standstill after the pandemic, TASMAC was forced to shut shop. While working class families struggled to survive without daily wages, the absence of alcohol at least gave them hope of a new and better life after corona. And the Madras high court’s decision to order the closure of liquor shops till the lockdown ends was widely welcomed for that reason.

On Friday, however, the Supreme Court stayed the high court’s order.  The state’s advocates argued that the high court has stepped outside its domain and it is up to the government to decide how and what to sell. With the Supreme Court’s green light, the Tamil Nadu government is now all set to reopen TASMAC outlets from May 16 (except for the Greater Chennai police limits).

Let down by their government, and now by the Supreme Court, the women of the state are bracing themselves for more violence and suffering.

Kavitha Gajendran is a Chennai based activist, working with AIDWA.