Growing up on a military base and having a reasonably liberal upbringing, I had never once thought that drinking was something to be frowned upon. I’m half punjabi, half malayali and fully fauji. On a base, evening drinks was a daily affair and social events were always designed around alcohol. My father, both grandfathers, all my uncles & dad’s colleagues drank. Several of the ladies I knew growing up also drank (both in the armed forces and in our family circles). All this was quite normal. In fact, when I first mentioned my to-be-husband to my father, his first question was whether he drank (and ate meat). Most people in my family would not have taken well to a teetotaler.
When I moved to Chennai a few years ago, I first came across the ‘TASMAC’. I soon began to loathe it. I didn’t understand how I could walk into a fine dining italian restaurant and not be able to order a glass of wine. I didn’t understand why if TASMACs were doing so well, the shops were all so dirty and poorly kept. As I learnt more about it, I understood its deeper history and peculiarities. And then Sasi Perumal died and Prohibition became the big ticket political issue of the season. Prohibition was never the issue of original protest, it was for the relocation of one TASMAC outlet due to the public nuisance it was causing. Similar requests were being made by women’s groups across the state (they’ve been doing this for years).
Around the same time, news of TASMACs record breaking expected annual earnings of over Rs.29,673 crore was also making headlines. On 26th March this year, the New Indian Express ran an article that stated that more than 25% of the State’s revenue was to come from TASMAC sales. By April, the All India Democratic Women’s Association launched a state wide agitation in Krishnagiri against TASMAC outlets blaming the State Government for destruction of family life. Opposition parties saw a great opportunity here. By June, CPIM, TMC, BJP, PMK, DMK all joined these protests in different districts demanding total prohibition. Last month saw some pretty agitated protests across the state and even Chennai. My research for this topic began prior to all this happening and while I don’t know what turns this story is going to take, my attempt is to build a much broader narrative of the relationship of TASMAC to the people of this state.
The proposed project with UHP is about just uncovering information about TASMAC and perhaps understanding better the dynamics at play.
Broadly speaking, this project is split into three parts:
• History of alcohol culture in Tamil Nadu
• Economic data on TASMAC
• Photoessays on alcohol culture in the present day
Gathering a written history of alcohol in Chennai
The project will begin first to bring to light the history of alcohol in Tamil Nadu. I assume not many photographs will be available about this but happily will accept leads in this regard.
It is well known that country liquor was the primary drink of choice prior to the days of the Raj and probably continued well into post-independence. While TASMAC was set-up only in 1983, the state had been controlling liquor from as far back as 1937 when prohibition was first enforced. Between then and 2001, it was lifted thrice for brief periods of time. When TASMAC was born, the state was put fully in charge of wholesale liquor sales. I’d like to explore who the sellers and buyers were at this point. Up until 2003, you could bid for a retail license to sell liquor to customers but the government was suffering huge losses due to formation of cartels. That is when the complete control of even the retail aspect of alcohol sales was brought under the TASMAC. So if you were a retailer then, your shop was either shut down or taken over by the government. At that point, the AIADMK was in power, but their successors in 2006 did not revise this policy probably realizing the sheer amount of revenue it was bringing in to the state’s coffers.
Economic data on TASMAC
It’s common knowledge that a large percentage of the state’s budget is made up of taxes collected on alcohol and cigarettes, ‘sin taxes’ as they are commonly called. This creates a situation where the state’s dependence on these revenues legitimately raises questions over its rationale for prohibition and its current method of operating TASMAC.
Statistical Data we’re hoping to collect:
• Historical % of alcohol revenue in TN
• How much does the state make currently in alcohol sales
• Mapping of all TASMACs in the city
• How does the distribution of TASMACs differ vis-à-vis high income and low income neighbourhoods?
Alcohol culture in the present day
Alcohol culture when viewed through a lens of class and creed reveals vast disparities. Traditionally alcohol consumption has been taboo among the middle class, constantly reinforced by the portrayal of drunks in poor light in cinema. Consuming at home is a still a big no-no in most households but with a substantial increase in bars and night clubs in Chennai, alcohol consumption outside the home is definitely increasing greatly. The new bars are without exception aimed at upper class citizens with their prices reflecting the difficulty of procuring a liquor license in the state compared to states like Karnataka or Kerala.
The alcohol culture among the working class and urban poor is much more multifaceted. Traditionally this group consumed country liquor but that has changed over the years and they have now become the primary market for TASMAC sales. But they do not have the same spaces available to them resulting in public spaces being commandeered to become night time drinking spots. The empty bottles lying in playgrounds, beaches and parks bear testament to the problem.
It will be interesting to document this disparity and see how it translates into the problems of alcoholism and so forth.
Some unanswered questions:
• During the time of prohibition in Tamil Nadu, what was happening in the country/neighboring states?
• What happened to sale of country liquor during the various changes in the government’s policy?
• What happened to policy of the Pondicherry government that only came part of India in 1954?
• What specifically triggered the first prohibition in Tamil Nadu & the subsequent ones that followed?
• How were/are religious & women’s groups effective in campaigning for prohibition?
• Who are the groups not impacted by this restriction (i.e military, expats, social clubs)
• How big is the problem of alcoholism? What action is the state taking to curb it?
• Will a change in policy i.e loosening of the restriction benefit anyone?
• What triggered the establishment of the ‘TASMAC Elite’ stores? How many TASMAC elites are currently open in the state? Is there a plan to expand?
• Are there links between brewers / distillers and political players?
• What are the purchasing policies for TASMAC? Are there tenders given to brewers and distillers?
• What is the acceptance of drinking among various socio-economic groups?
• Brewing of wine at home – is this legal?
• What are the current rehab facilities available? Does the Government provide rehab options?
• What are the demographics of people who visit these rehab centers and AA meetings?
Capturing these various facets of the culture in the state through the medium of photography will be an interesting challenge.
I’m hoping some of these questions can be answered through crowd-sourcing and some via some serious digging around over the next few weeks & months!