CPM shuts down a day-old liquor outlet to honour M V Govindan's 'unwritten pact' with bar owners

  • ConsumerFed opened its liquor outlet 1km from a bar in Kasaragod's Cheruvathur town and collected Rs 9.42 lakh on the first day
  • CITU workers, auto drivers' union, and party workers launch unprecedented protest against the party leadership in party bastion after outlet was shut
  • Rattled CPM leadership organises a public meeting and gives a weird explanation for the closure
CPM Kasaragod District Secretary M V Balakrishnan addressing an 'explanatory meet' in Cheruvathur on Tuesday, January 15. Photo: Special arrangement

Kasaragod: "Should we tolerate these greedy leaders bowing before the capitalist class? We are not your slaves to endorse whatever you do," read a banner put up in front of a shuttered liquor outlet of ConsumerFed at Cheruvathur town in Kasaragod. The banner was signed off by CPM workers of Kadangod in Cheruvathur grama panchayat.

The banner came up after a foreign liquor retail outlet of Kerala State Cooperative Consumers Federation (ConsumerFed) was forced to shut down after a day's business.
A ConsumerFed official said the outlet had a soft launch without any publicity. Yet, it did a business of Rs 9.42 lakh on November 23, 2023, its first day. But the same night, the CPM's Cheruvathur Area Committee held a meeting and decided to shut the store. The message was passed on to ConsumerFed and the store never reopened.

The sudden shutdown has pitted the CPM and CITU workers against the party leadership in the party bastion of Cheruvathur. "Leaders who betrayed the movement will be tried on the street. This is the warning of Nappachal-Puthiyakandam Saghakkal (comrades)," screamed another banner. "Back stabbers, Kadakku Purathu (get out)," it read, quoting the infamous words Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan used in separate instances.

"If you have decided to show your loyalty to the bar owner merely for scraps, bear in mind that you're cutting off the branch you're seated on," read another banner put up by CPM workers of Puthiyakandam, a bastion of the party.

A section of workers accused the leadership of taking bribes from the owner of a bar in the town to shut down the outlet, 1 km away.

Banners put up in front of a shuttered liquor outlet of ConsumerFed at Cheruvathur town in Kasaragod. Photo: Special arrangement

The party, which kept mum for more than one month, is now saying that when M V Govindan was the Excise Minister, he gave a verbal assurance to bar owners that the government would not open a foreign liquor retail outlet within 2 km of a bar. Govindan is now heading the CPM in Kerala as its secretary.

But soon after the outlet was shut, headload workers (porters) and autorickshaw drivers' union affiliated with the CPM's Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) went public with their disapproval. "We expected to get some jobs and business in town," said Pankajakshan M, a headload worker. If a liquor outlet cannot function in a town, where will it function, he asked. "If it is moved to a remote area, there will not be enough business either for ConsumerFed or for us," he said.

On December 21, CITU workers started a sit-in before the outlet, stopping ConsumerFed several times from taking away the stock. "We want the outlet to reopen here itself," he said.

As CITU's protest gathered momentum, CPM workers from Kodakkad, Kannadipara-Valiyaparamb, Puthiyakandam, Mundakkandam, Vengat, and Kariyil -- all CPM villages -- started assembling at the shuttered outlet with banners questioning the party leadership. In all, 13 banners were hoisted in front of the shop. The "flood of banners" rattled the CPM's district leadership led by District Secretary M V Balakrishnan.

Banners put up in front of a shuttered liquor outlet of ConsumerFed at Cheruvathur town in Kasaragod. Photo: Special arrangement

"On January 10, the district committee asked us to wind up their protest and assured us that ConsumerFed would not remove the stock without the party's consent," said Pankajakshan. It was just a tactic to end the 21-day-long protest.

M V Govindan's word to bar owners
"A bar, which functions after acquiring a licence, will shut shop if a retail outlet comes up in front of it. Therefore, a liqour shop should not be set up near the bar. That is a stance taken by the government," Govindan said.

He said there is no government order to back up the policy. "It is an understanding," he said. "An outlet just needs a small space, people will go there even if it's on any hilltop," he said.

When contacted, ConsumerFed said it has no plan to reopen the outlet at the same place. "We will not reopen at Cheruvathur. Officially, there is no reason to shut the outlet. We closed it because of local issues. We decided to let go. Why be stubborn?" said ConsumerFed chairman M Mehaboob.

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MV Govindan. Photo: Manorama

However, he made it clear that there was no rule barring a liquor outlet within 2 km of a bar. "The former Excise minister (Govindan) had struck an understanding with bar owners," he said. "There was no Government Order but there was an understanding," he said. Mahaboob said the stock would be removed from the closed store in due time.

Deputy Excise Commissioner B Radhakrishnan, responsible for Abkari affairs in the state, also said nothing in the law barred a retail liquor outlet and a bar from existing together in the same vicinity. Kerala State Beverages Corporation (Bevco) and ConsumerFed -- the two government agencies authorised to retail liquor -- can conduct their own financial feasibility study and propose a site to sell liquor, he said. "Now if an outlet is there and a bar comes up, they will not change the location," he said.

To be sure, there are two bars within a one-km range of Bevco's outlet in Kanhangad town in Kasaragod district and three bars within a one-km range of Bevco's outlet in Payyannur town in Kannur district.

CPM's weird explanation
On Monday (January 15), the CPM organised an "explanatory meet" in Cheruvathur town and came up with weird explanations to defend the closure of the outlet. ConsumerFed committed a mistake by opening an outlet without discussing with the party or the party's knowledge at Cheruvathur, said K P Satheesh Chandran, CPM's state committee member and former Kasaragod district secretary.

"When a mistake is committed, the only option is to shut it down, and it was shut," he said at the public meeting.

One fine morning, ConsumerFed started an outlet in Cheruvathur without informing the party, he said. "That is not correct."

He, however, said the outlet would be reopened in another location. "Our policy is abstinence, but for those who want to drink, the government will provide them safe liquor," he said and added that more bars would come once the highway work is completed.

In Karnataka, when Indiana Hospital was built, there was only one liquor shop in the junction. "Now, there are around 15 liquor shops in that stretch. As a town develops, bars would come up," he said.

His explanation did not sit well with the CPM's action of shutting down the only retail outlet in Cheruvathur. The next retail outlet was 15km away in Nileshwar.

But the present District Secretary M V Balakrishnan put to rest the speculation on why the outlet was shut. "When Govindan Master was the excise minister, before becoming the party secretary, taxes were increased and they (bar owners) protested," he said.

The government called a meeting with the bar owners. "They said if you start an establishment near their establishment, they will leave. Based on that, a decision was taken not to open a retail outlet near bars," he said. "This outlet at Cheruvathur was shut because of that decision," he said.

Both Balakrishnan and Satheesh Chandran asked the "misguided" members and sympathisers of the party to back off from the protest. On the allegation of party leaders taking money from bar owners, Balakrishnan said: "Be it a bar owner or a quarry owner, no party leader should unnecessarily accept money from them. That would be corruption".

He then asked the members to bring at least a piece of circumstantial evidence of leaders taking money and he would ensure that they are ousted from the party. "But we cannot defame anybody... When I saw the banner I felt sad. I was pained," he said and added that the banners were put up by a few in the name of the whole village. "Shouldn't it be questioned that five people can put up banners in their names? Should it be allowed to repeat?" he said.

Consumer moves High Court
Meanwhile, Rajesh K T (39), a resident of Cheruvathur, has moved the High Court of Kerala seeking immediate reopening of the ConsumerFed outlet. He has alleged that the outlet was shut because of "highhanded influence".

He said the bar is three times more costly than the liquor available at the outlet and the nearest retail outlet from Cheruvathur is 15km away. "It is the right of the petitioner to get good liquor at an affordable rate," he said. The state of Kerala, ConsumerFed, and the Excise Department, which sanctioned the licence are the respondents.

Madhavan Nair P, the owner of the building, said he has sent a notice to ConsumerFed asking for Rs 10 lakh as compensation and rent for the past two months. The rent is Rs 90,000 per month. "I had to give Rs 10 lakh to a TVS Motor two-wheeler franchise because it was evicted on short notice. I spent another Rs 40,000 on earthwork to prepare the backyard. On top of it, KSEB disconnected the power supply to the building because ConsumerFed has not paid the bill," he said.

Killing competition
Bevco used to run a retail liquor outlet, 2 km from the bar, at Paduvalam in Pilicode grama panchayat. In 2013, around the time the bar started, women of Kudumbashree went on a strike demanding the closure of the outlet.

The then Excise Minister K Babu said in the Assembly that the protests were guided by the vested interests of some people. He was answering a question posed by the then Trikaripur MLA of the CPM K Kunhiraman on shifting the outlet from Paduvalam. Babu said the outlet was functioning with the court's permission. After 90 days of protest, the outlet at Paduvalam was shut.

In Kannur's Cherupuzha grama panchayat, ConsumerFed had to close down its retail outlet around one year ago.

Around four months ago, there was an attempt to shift the ConsumerFed's outlet at Alakode in Kannur district. "But residents put up strong resistance and the attempt was aborted," said a headload worker affiliated with Congress's INTUC. Cherupuzha and Alakode have bars run by the same management.

Headload workers said four truckloads of liquor used to arrive at the Cherupuzha outlet every week. "We were expecting similar business in Cheruvathur going by the first day's business," said a CITU leader. That one outlet could have increased the monthly income of every headload worker by at least Rs 10,000, he said. "The bar would have also benefited. But the party hampered the economy of the town," he said.

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