Memes fly thick and fast amid spirited debate on move to open BEVCO outlets on KSRTC premises

Biju Prabhakar (left), the Chairman and Managing Director (CMD) of KSRTC and KB Ganesh Kumar.

Transport Minister Antony Raju's announcement that the Kerala Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) is considering renting out space on its premises across the State to Beverages Corporation (Bevco) to operate its liquor outlets has launched several memes, trolling the plan.

The trolls, reflecting the quintessential Malayali humour, linked the announcement with the daily occurrences on RTC buses, bringing smiles to netizens.

One such meme has a woman conductor informing a commuter that the bus would take another 30 minutes to reach his destination, Vadakara. "Another 30 minutes more, Kanaretta," the conductor says in the meme. "Meanwhile, what about a small (30ml of liquor)," she asks, reflecting on the acquaintance of KSRTC crew with the commuters.

Though the troll-makers intention is to poke fun at the minister and the ailing Corporation, some have been wondering, and hoping, that the memes may come true.

The Bevco outlets and KSRTC buses are ubiquitous in Kerala, and it helped the trolls to gain much traction. For Biju Prabhakar, the Chairman and Managing Director (CMD) of KSRTC, the idea to accommodate Bevco outlets on the Corporation premises sprouted from this familiarity.

Public divided
With memes flying thick and fast, people started taking sides, arguing for and against the move. Caught in the crossfire, however, are the government and ministers, who are confused over the stand they should adopt over the contentious proposal.

Tipplers, meanwhile, are seeing an opportunity to sneak out of homes for their regular sundowners. "Will be back now, just going to KSRTC," seems to be a decent excuse rather than reluctantly mumbling, "going to Bevco."

They are also putting forth a "valid" point: both are government-owned institutions. One is in the red, while the other has been reaping huge profits. Tipplers feel it is the responsibility of the profitable Corporation to support the one in loss.

Desperate move to stay afloat
The KSRTC CMD mooted the idea since the revenues from operational services have been falling short to meet the Corporation's daily expenses, even inadequate to tank up the buses. It is a desperate move on his part to find alternative revenue streams to keep the public transport service provider rolling.

Prabhakar, in fact, has been seeking several ways to jack up the revenue. Old buses waiting to be scrapped were converted into eateries, tea stalls and milk booths. Advertisements on buses and KSRTC-owned spaces are other sources of revenue. A few buses at the depot in Munnar, a popular tourist spot, have been converted into hotels, where tourists can stay overnight. Double-decker buses are being leased out to 'Save the Date' and wedding photo shoots.

Renting out space to Bevco is the latest in his desperate move to keep the Corporation running. Some frowned at the idea, but for several others, it is a whacky one that made them smile.

Troll factories shift gear
Minutes after the minister's announcement, troll factories went on an overdrive. "Earlier we used to buy two fulls and two halves in KSRTC buses. Never thought it would materialize so soon," a meme said, linking full and half bus ticket fare for adults and children, respectively, with liquor bottles.

Most memes, as usual, borrowed heavily from Malayalam movies. With one portraying KPAC Lalitha in airhostess' attire serving liquor on a KSRTC bus going viral, ministers went into a shell and fell silent.

As the announcement sparked a controversy and trolls, Minister Raju came out with an explanation, saying the liquor outlets would not be located in KSRTC depots, but in the large complexes owned by the Corporation.

Minister for Excise M V Govindan, meanwhile, expressed ignorance over the KSRTC's plan.

Kottarakara KSRTC bus stand
Kottarakara KSRTC bus stand

Support for Prabhakar
CMD Prabhakar, however, received strong backing from Kerala Congress (B) MLA K B Ganesh Kumar, who had held the Transport portfolio in the A K Antony ministry in the early 2000s. Speaking publicly in support of the move, he said there was nothing wrong in it and drew attention to the Bevco outlet at Kottarakkara, located next to the KSRTC and private bus stands. "Nothing has gone wrong there so far," he said.

Further, he questioned whether those queueing up at Bevoc outlets had ever created any problem. "Let the KSRTC make some revenue, and repay its loans. Please don't hamper its move," the MLA requested.

Taking a dig at the Opposition, Kumar said a former KSRTC employee, who is now a Congress leader, has condemned the KSRTC's move. "His party could not make KSRTC profitable when they were in power. KSRTC doesn't have enough revenues to even operate its schedules. It is deplorable to insult an MD when he tries to find an alternative source of revenue," the MLA said.

Speaking to reporters, Kumar drew attention to bars at international airports, including the one at Kochi. "What is their (critics) problem? Are they worried about KSRTC getting rent? They don't have any issues if a private party is getting rent," he said.

Kumar further added that all those who drink are not troublemakers. "It's an individual choice whether to drink or not. But they should not become a nuisance to others under the influence of alcohol," the actor-politician said.

One for the State
The argument that those lining up for alcohol are not troublemakers has already gained acceptance in Kerala. Conflicts are seldom reported, and police are not deployed to maintain law and order. The queues are often pointed out as examples of public decency. It is also said, albeit jokingly, those queueing up brave the sun for the government and the State.

Kerala, which had garnered Rs 14,508 crore through sale of liquor in 2018-19, posted a dip by about 14 percent in the subsequent year to Rs 12,298 crore, due to COVID-19-related lockdown. When the outlets were reopened after around 40 days of lockdown, Kerala recorded a single-day liquor sales of Rs 52 crore.

Tipplers raise a toast for change
Arguments favouring liquor outlets on KSRTC premises are not acceptable to naysayers. Bus stands are frequented by women and children, they pointed out. They also argued that people may join the queue after getting drunk for another round.

Tipplers, meanwhile, won't have any of the arguments. They demanded a debate on the plan and an immediate decision. For many of them, having an outlet at KSRTC premises will be profitable, since they can save the auto-rickshaw fare required for going to the outlet before boarding a bus home.

On a philosophical note, they suggested to "change the perspective rather than viewing a Bevco outlet with contempt." The drunk creating trouble will change by time, tipplers said, adding that such people are now rarely seen in bus stands.

Even as memes have a field day and the spirited debate rages, those responsible for making decisions are silent behind the curtains. Apparently, they want the debate to end peacefully.

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