Reopening TASMAC amidst lockdown paves way for illegal sales of liquor in TN
“For how many days did the state give us a thousand rupees? It took it all back in TASMAC stores anyway,” said a labourer, pointing out that despite the state providing cash assistance to families in the Below Poverty Line (BPL) categories, it exploits their weaknesses during the coronavirus pandemic.
Colourful umbrellas have been arranged in an open field in Maduranthakam Taluk of Chengalpattu district. Under each open umbrella sits a man who has been there since sunrise, eagerly hoping to purchase liquor from a TASMAC outlet.
“I begged my daughter for Rs. 250. Of course she doesn’t know I’m here. Shhh….don’t tell her!” said Vinayagam before bursting into laughter with the men around him. The 71-year-old is waiting alongside hundreds of men who are waiting to get a token to purchase liquor.
The Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation Limited (TASMAC) follows a token system where only 750 tokens are issued to a particular shop every day. “It was originally limited to 500 tokens but with more people showing up, the limit has been pushed to 750,” said the Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP), R. Mahendiran. Additionally, the colour of the tokens varies for each day of the week.
“There are 11 TASMAC outlets open in Maduranthakam subdivision. Every location has at least 30 to 40 police officers,” said the Superintendent of Police, D. Kannan. On May 17th, eight people were arrested by the Chengalpattu police department for trying to pass on coloured photocopies of tokens for original ones. “A case has been filed against them and they are now on remand,” added SP, D. Kannan.
There are two queues in every location. The first queue is meant for those who collected that day’s token the day before and the other is where people wait their turn to collect the remaining tokens. “I came here by 9 a.m. yesterday but all the tokens were given away. By 12 p.m., they gave me today’s token. I came by 6 a.m. today to get ahead of everyone else,” said Sankar. “For nearly two days, I’ve gone home empty handed. So today, I came here by 7 a.m.,” said Vinayagam.
Carrying an umbrella and wearing a mask is compulsory while waiting in line. “If anybody shows up tomorrow without umbrellas, you will be sent back,” announced DSP R. Mahendiran on a mic which turned many heads. Speaking to Asiaville, DSP R. Mahendiran said, “Inevitably while standing underneath an open umbrella, he will be far away from his neighbour and this helps practice social distancing. Secondly, heat strokes are very common and this can help protect them from the scorching sun.”
The tiny blue shed
It is the hottest month of the year (often referred to as Kathiri Veyil) where temperatures are in the 40-41 degree celsius range. Those familiar with the situation came armed with towels and huge water bottles.
Growling stomachs, shirts drenched in sweat and tired eyes are things the men waiting here have in common. But around 10 a.m there is a palpable air of excitement as everyone shifts restlessly in their spots. The policemen around them are now splitting up to check the tokens, guide people to the outlet, and look out for illegal activities near the field.
Like ants lining up to forage for food, people with the tokens begin pacing towards the liquor store that is 200 metres away, while having to maintain the protocols of physical distancing. The police send people in batches, with each batch having 50 men or less. Simultaneously, police officers are distributing tokens to the people who are waiting there on a first come first serve basis.
Suddenly, silence falls on the field as several pairs of envious eyes follow the first man exiting the location, struggling to balance a huge box of liquor on his shoulder. Slowly but steadily, the sound of clinking bottles and agitated voices increases as one approaches the liquor store.
The store is a 10x10 feet sized tiny blue shed with six to seven TASMAC employees running the show. Two employees handle the orders at two counters and the others rummage through stock, with some even having to stand on top of liquor boxes due to a lack of space inside the store. The interactions between the customers and the employees reveal a lot of details about the nature of the situation.
“Anna, give me another seven half (375ml) bottles,” cried a panicked man as he was hurried by the police officer behind him.
“Two, four, six, seven… there you go,” said an employee holding multiple bottles by the necks between his fingers.
“You gave 9,000 rupees. There’s 4,400 rupees left. What do you want to buy?” asks an employee to a customer instead of handing over the change.
“Quick! What are you doing man? Open your bag!” screamed one employee at a customer struggling to open the mouth of a jute bag with his right hand while his left was carrying 20 quarter (90ml) bottles.
“Get out! Now! Move from here” yelled a police officer as he slapped a man across the back of his neck for taking too long at the counter. A few seconds later, the man walked away with a carton of 90ml bottles.
The cash box is a table drawer present between the two counters. Many questions remain unanswered, as there is no billing system in place. How much liquor is purchased by each individual? What is the individual rate of items purchased? With stacks of notes thrown in every second, a stock book is nowhere to be seen.
With no cap on the quantity of liquor purchased or the total amount one can spend, many walk away with liquor worth thousands of rupees. But how do labourers working in construction jobs and on agricultural lands have that kind of money? They don’t. They are labourers here too.
Taken advantage of
Like Vinayagam, some fought with their families for money. Others go into debt. “I have just seventy-five rupees. I will have to borrow the rest to buy one quarter today,” said the construction worker. “I just need it. If I don’t have it, I feel like a crazy person. I don’t understand what is going on around me,” he said holding his head. “A while ago, I even threatened to commit suicide. My son then gave me a thousand rupees. I had no choice.” Here in Mathuranthagam, such people are preyed upon.
Many waiting in line have accused wealthy people of exploiting men from lower-income families using their weaknesses. The token system acts as a gateway for the wealthy to lure addicts and unemployed individuals who recently lost their jobs due to the lockdown.
“Getting these tokens is a big deal. People from other districts, particularly from Chennai are here for it,” said a construction worker. “It is because of them that locals are left with no tokens. Why else are we here this early?” On the other hand, the DSP dismissed these remarks. He said, “We ask everybody to show their Aadhar cards at the entrance. Only locals are allowed to buy liquor.”
Many sitting here do not have their own money. They hope that if they buy liquor for others, they may get a couple of bottles or even some money in their wallets to feed their families. “People are paid at least 500 rupees and a 90ml liquor bottle for a token,” said a labourer who is working in a machine factory. “DMK and AIADMK members come in their fancy cars, flash their party identity cards and hand out bulk cash. They throw their money at these men, park far away from the location for a couple of hours, get their liquor and drive away.”
Some even claimed that liquor was being sold illegally in the perimeter. “It happens right here,” said Vinayagam pointing to the unkempt field behind the store. “You can’t blame the cops. They constantly keep shooing men away for hours and hours. Nothing stops these people,” complained Vinayagam. The SP addressed these remarks and said, “Whoever is caught participating in the illegal sale of liquor will be arrested.”
The state is aware of it. The state is okay with it
TASMAC has been owned by the government of Tamil Nadu under the Home, Prohibition and Excise Department since 1983. This means that TASMAC controls the wholesale and retail vending of alcoholic beverages.
Needless to say, a huge portion of the state’s revenue came from the tax revenue generated by TASMAC. Additionally, the company even sets targets during the festive periods of Diwali, Pongal and New Year to boost revenue. Since being taken over by the state, TASMAC has seen a significant growth in revenue. For instance, the revenue tripled from 10,601.5 crores (2008-09) to 31,157 crores (2019) in a decade.
When the Supreme Court ordered the closure of liquor outlets near highways in 2016, 3,000 of 6,200 shops in the state were closed. The State took steps to convert State highways into district and panchayat roads; then they reopened the closed outlets after the apex court rejected the PILs filed by the state, and upheld its decision in 2017.
By 29 February 2020, Tasmac made Rs 28,839.08 crore. It was set to exceed its target of Rs. 31,000 crore before the end of the fiscal year. Since the country went into lockdown from March 24 onwards, Tamil Nadu has suffered a fall in total revenue collection. Reports show that the state lost 85% of GST revenue in April.
To reduce the burden on bridging the gap between revenue and expenditure, particularly during this pandemic, the state reopened TASMAC outlets for a few days early in May but failed to effectively implement physical distancing measures. When the Madras High Court ordered the closure of liquor shops in the state until the COVID-19 lockdown was lifted or modified, it immediately challenged the order. It said this closure would lead to severe revenue and commercial losses.
From a top-down view, on paper, it seems like the state had no other choice but to reopen TASMAC outlets to keep itself afloat, but on the other hand, it would be incorrect to assume that the state is unaware of the ground reality and its impact on communities.
In fact, it even increased the prices of liquor by fifteen per cent. “For how many days did the state give us a thousand rupees? It took it all back in TASMAC stores anyway,” said the construction-site worker pointing out that despite the state providing cash assistance to families in the Below Poverty Line (BPL) categories, it exploits their weaknesses during the coronavirus pandemic.
As of 27th May 2020, Tamil Nadu has over 8,000 active patients and the state government has planned to lift the lockdown in a calibrated manner. There is no clarification as to the reopening of outlets in various hotspots around the state but when will it address the current system where addicts and unemployed labourers continue to fall prey to it?
WATCH THE EXCLUSIVE VIDEO (with english subtitles): I visited a TASMAC during lockdown in Tamil Nadu