National

Mahe loses spirit as Kerala goes slow on booze

K. P. M. Basheer Mahe | Updated on March 12, 2018

A view of the liquor shops at Mahe. . Mahe's liquor business thrives on the demand from customers from Kerala who come to the small town daily to cash in on the lower prices. — K. K. Mustafah

This strip of land overlooking the Arabian Sea and sandwiched between two Kerala districts, but administered by Puducherry, is a little gloomy these days.

The reason: Keralites, India’s top boozers, are cutting down on alcohol consumption for a change. Since a large chunk of the 42,000 population of Mahe (also called Mayyazhi), a tiny former French outpost, lives off the alcohol cravings of Keralites, that is cause for deep concern.

There are 64 liquor outlets in an area of 1 km in Mahe, one of the four districts of Puducherry. Liquor is cheaper in Mahe because of fewer here. For instance, a bottle of Mansion House brandy sells for Rs 300 in Mahe while in Kerala, it is Rs 530.)

“More than 90 per cent of our customers are from Kerala,” says T. Ashok Kumar, former president and now legal adviser of Mahe Liquor Merchants Association. “The livelihoods of a large number of people as well as the survival of many restaurants and other related service-providers are linked to the liquor business.”

‘SPIRIT’UAL PILGRIMAGE

Thousands of people from Kerala make ‘alcoholic pilgrimages’ to Mahe every day to cash in on the huge price advantage. Their numbers peak on the first of every month as Kerala’s law forces liquor outlets and bars to take a day off that day (ostensibly to discourage salaried drinkers from splurging money on alcohol on government pay day).

Sales at Mahe’s retail and wholesale outlets shoot up during the annual Onam festival, the longest drinking vacation for Keralites.

But this Onam season, which ended mid-September, liquor sales were 20-30 per cent less than last year’s, according to Arun Sebastian, president of the association. The major reason for this was the perceptible dip in alcohol consumption across Kerala.

The reason for the dip is yet to be probed, though anti-liquor campaigns, widespread crackdown on drunk driving and the extraordinarily long monsoon this time are cited as reasons.

Around 1,200 people are employed in the liquor outlets in Mahe town and many more in the ancillary sectors, Sebastian told Business Line. “If the downfall continues, Mahe’s economy will be badly hit.”

BEVCO SALES DOWN

Kerala, whose per capita alcohol consumption is the highest among Indian States and double the national average, is slowly retreating. The Kerala State Beverages Corporation (Bevco), the State-owned IMFL (Indian-made foreign liquor) monopoly, has reported a decline in sales during the just concluded Onam season. The Onam turnover was Rs 326 crore, down from Rs 333 crore last year.

Bevco’s turnover in 2012-13 was Rs 8,818 crore. The most profitable public-sector enterprise in Kerala, Bevco had contributed Rs 7,241 crore to the government coffers in the last financial year as taxes and other charges (The total tax on liquor is a whopping 600-plus per cent). For more than a decade, it has been consistently making double-digit strides in volume, turnover and profits.

For the first time, a Bevco official said on condition of anonymity, there might be a shortfall of around two per cent this financial year. Of course, the fall is marginal, but, for Kerala, it is quite remarkable as drinking has become a major concern of social and religious organisations.

Liquor has been an essential part of the social life of Mahe ever since the French East India Company built a fort here in 1724. The French were ousted in a 1954 ‘police action.’ While the French cultural hangover has faded, drinking has thrived. But, the people of Mahe are considered ‘moderate’ drinkers.

E. Valsaraj, Mahe’s MLA in the Puducherry legislature, however, feels that the shrinking of the liquor trade is good for society, though bad for Mahe’s economy. “I don’t think it will be a disaster,” he told Business Line.

>basheer.kpm@thehindu.co.in

Published on October 03, 2013

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