When the matinee idol of Telugu cinema NT Rama Rao stormed to power with a landslide mandate in the 1994 Assembly elections, the first file he signed after taking oath as Chief Minister was to impose total prohibition in the state.
The “revolutionary move”, he had said, was to honour the Telugu women who led an anti-liquor agitation in Andhra Pradesh. The state-wide stir had prompted his Telugu Desam Party to make the introduction of dry law one its key poll promises.
However, around two years later, his successor and son-in-law N Chandrababu Naidu lifted the prohibition with a “heavy heart”, saying it was “neither successful nor feasible because of smuggling from bordering states.”
Now, Naidu’s bete noir Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy, who steered his YSR Congress Party to a landslide victory in the just-held elections, faces a tough challenge as prohibition is among the set of nine key promises made by his party.
At a time when Andhra Pradesh is facing the bifurcation blues and moaning under huge revenue deficit burden, the new government has an unenviable task of fulfilling the populist promises that include massive cash dole-outs. Imposing prohibition would further squeeze the government revenues, besides throwing up other challenges like flow of spurious liquor and smuggling.
“We have made a clear promise to the people to ban liquor. We have drawn up plans to do it in a phased manner so that a total prohibition can come into force by 2024,” a close aide of Jagan told The Federal.
As per the plan, the first phase will involve banning the ‘belt shops’, the unauthorised bars being run by licensed retail liquor outlets in the state. The belt shops have become a big menace, particularly in rural areas, and are seen as a major cause for growing addiction to alcohol.
In the next phase, restrictions would be imposed on the sale of alcohol. “It will be restricted to five-star hotels and other premium restaurants,” the sources said.
In media interviews to national news channels in Delhi soon after his stupendous victory, Jagan said the poll manifesto was like a “holy scripture” for him and that his government would limit the sale of liquor to five-star hotels.
“I will not seek votes for my party if I fail to implement the prohibition by 2024,” he asserted.
To begin with, the state government is likely to take over the retail liquor trade on the lines of a model being in force in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Delhi.
However, experts doubt the feasibility of the dry law in a state that is struggling to mobilise resources to build a new capital and fund the populist schemes. “We have seen how prohibition policy has failed in several states across the country. At a time when we are aggressively seeking investments into the residuary state and desperately want investors to come in, we cannot afford such regressive policies,” noted economist Kutumbha Rao said.
Seeking ideas from NGO
As part of preparation to introduce a dry law, Jagan has sought a report from an NGO, Jana Chaitanya Vedika (JCV), on how to go ahead with the policy. He has asked JCV president V Lakshman Reddy to prepare a road map suggesting various steps and actions to be taken up in a phased manner and submit to the government.
“To achieve the goal of complete liquor prohibition, the government should control both the demand and supply. This is possible only when the government takes over the retail business. We are proposing to cut down on the number of liquor shops in a phased manner over the next five years. The idea is to make liquor less and less available. Simultaneously, we are also proposing de-addiction centres and special awareness drives,” Lakshmana Reddy said.
Andhra Pradesh’s tryst with dry law was a spectacular failure in the past. An anti-arrack agitation started by a group of women at Dubbaka village in the coastal district of Nellore in 1990 soon snowballed into a state-wide social movement. It became a dominant issue in the run-up to the 1994 elections.
NTR, who was then in the opposition, was moved by the plight of women spearheading the agitation and promised prohibition if his Telugu Desam Party was voted to power. And, with a dramatic flourish, he had announced that the first file he would sign as Chief Minister would be on banning liquor.
He kept the promise. Within minutes of taking oath as CM for a second time on January 16, 1995, he announced total prohibition in the state. As a result, four breweries and 24 distilleries producing potable liquor were closed down and the state lost a revenue of Rs 800 crore in the first year.
Later, some exemptions were made. The tipplers had to produce a “doctor’s certificate” to buy alcohol from special outlets run by the state breweries corporation. A ‘permit’ would cost Rs 5,000 for individuals and Rs 50,000 for owners of bars or ‘permit rooms’ as they were called.
Soon, the state government had to grapple with rampant smuggling and free flow of illicit liquor, besides massive loss to the exchequer.
Investors put off
One of the negative fallout of the prohibition policy was that the potential investors were put off by it. “The prohibition policy was a total failure. It only led to an increase in bootlegging,” said Jannat Hussain who was the prohibition commissioner at that time.
“Andhra Pradesh has borders with five states – Maharashtra, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Tamil Nadu. How can any government prevent smuggling of liquor into the state?” he wondered.
Naidu bites the bullet
Driven against the wall by administrative problems, financial worries and increased smuggling, the Chandrababu Naidu government finally decided to do away with the prohibition.
The Andhra Pradesh Prohibition (Amendment) Bill was passed, ending the dry law from April 1, 1997. However, the ban on arrack still continues.
“Despite our best efforts, prohibition-related offenses, particularly illicit distillation and smuggling, have been steadily increasing in the state. The government has come to the painful conclusion that the Prohibition Act of 1995 needed to be modified to bring it in tune with ground realities,” Naidu had told the assembly while introducing the legislation to lift the prohibition.
“Liquor sales fetch an income of nearly Rs 3,000 crore per annum now, and this can be spent for improving the lot of the poor,” he had said.