Thursday, Jun 06, 2002
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By T. Ramavarman
The crisis is acutely felt in the Central districts of Ernakulam, Thrissur and Palakkad, where more than half of the toddy shops and about one-third of the total workforce in this sector in the State are concentrated. The lion's share of shops in these districts is yet to be sold off as few contractors have shown interest in buying them despite holding several rounds of auctions. But, even in districts like Thiruvananthapuram, where most of the shops were sold off on the first day of auction, the new owners have not opened the shops as they have not been able to set up common godowns and other related infrastructure. As per official records, there were about 37,000 registered workers and 6,000 unregistered workers in this sector as on March 31, 2000. According to trade union sources, another 2,000 workers who have entered the sector during the last two years are awaiting their registration. But there is no sign yet of the Government having grasped the gravity of the situation, and it seems to be still unwilling to review its abkari policy. The officials of the Excise Department and district administration are also groping in the dark, as they have no clear-cut Government directive on how to resolve the crisis.
The new policy, which dismantled the practice of selling toddy shops to cooperate societies introduced by the previous LDF Government, was trumpeted by the UDF as one that would end the hold of liquor barons over the toddy sector. The policy also put a stop to the custom of auctioning out all toddy shops in an Excise range together, and instead introduced the method of selling the shops individually. But as its critics, both within the UDF and outside, feared, the policy could only consolidate the entry of the liquor lobby through the backdoor. In fact, toddy shops have been sold off in a massive scale under the new policy only in districts like Thiruvananthapuram and Pathanamthitta, where the liquor barons have entered the fray through benamis. However, in Thrissur, nearly 340 of the 537 shops are yet to be sold off whereas in Ernakulam, 212 of the 535-odd shops remained unsold, despite seven rounds of auction. In Palakkad also, a sizeable number of shops, 161 of the 555 shops is yet to be sold off. One of the reasons cited for the contractors keeping away in these districts is the decision of the Government to reduce the number of shops and to end the practice of auctioning out shops on range basis. According to contractors, the shops cannot be run economically if they are purchased individually, because "then we will not be able to compensate the loss of one shop through the profits from another shop.''
Also, both the unions and contractors argue that the decision to wind up nearly 2,000-odd shops under the new policy had upset the economic equations in the toddy sector. It is unlikely that the customers of a closed down shop can be wooed to another distant shop in the present situation where there is easy availability of illicit liquor, they assert. Yet another reason for the reduced interest in toddy shops in these districts is the presence of strong trade union movements and the high wage-structure prevailing here. The unions themselves concede that it would be difficult to run the toddy shops after paying the legally fixed minimum wages, bonus and the contribution to the Workers' Welfare Fund in the present context.
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