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A drunken point of view

An arbitrary condemnation and shutdown of liquor sales during the lockdown can only impede India’s fight against COVID-19 while also impacting the law and order situation

A drunken point of view

Let's talk liquor. Or the lack of it due to the Janata Curfew called by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 22, 2020, and the subsequent 21-day lockdown imposed across the country from March 25, 2020. Let's also talk about what this forced prohibition of sorts means for India as a whole — for the economy, for people who are used to their daily dose of tipple but are not getting it anymore, and for the over 110 crore other teetotaler Indians who are now huddled at home with their 'deprived drinker' family members. There are some dark stories being played out inside our four walls today, ones which are in their own way as crippling and frightening as the dreaded COVID-19 pandemic now stalking our lives without apology.

Let's take a look at some numbers. The impact of the national lockdown on India's GDP is $8 billion per day. The paradox is that the flipside to the acceleration in India's economy since the introduction of reforms in the 1990s also means that any deceleration due to events such as COVID-19 is equally profound and debilitating. GST collections in March outline a numbing impact; they fell by around Rs 7,000 crore due to the few lockdown days in March. April will be worse. And reverting to the topic at hand, the halting of liquor sales in the country for 21 days would result in excise losses of nearly Rs 10,000 crore.

With the March 22, 2020 announcement of the 21-day national lockdown from March 25, 2020, some state administrations like New Delhi and Maharashtra were quick to down liquor vendor shutters the next day itself. Others such as Haryana, Kerala and Punjab, to name but a few, remained open a few days into the lockdown. But India's electronic media got fierce with the state governments over this 'shameless support' for 'sharabis' (read drunkards). Sure, some leaders such as Haryana Deputy Chief Minister Dushyant Chautala calmly explained that liquor, to an extent, was an essential commodity for habitual drinkers, who would otherwise end up in hospitals with withdrawal symptoms and burden an already stressed healthcare system. But TV channels did not relent and cited the state governments' 'greed for excise collections' as the real reason for continuing sales. A few days later, even as Punjab and Kerala mulled over the option of including liquor in the list of essential commodities, India went dry.

Just a few days later, the withdrawal shenanigans began. Kerala witnessed sudden cases of suicides by regular drinkers who had been thrust into forced abstinence. Bihar and Tamil Nadu also saw suicides. Hyderabad reported horror stories of a mammoth rise in the number of those being admitted into de-addiction centres. More alarming was that most of those being brought in had head injuries from banging their heads on the walls of their homes. A few others, who had become increasingly aggressive, were brought to the de-addiction centres tied up in chains.

Around the same time, the National Commission for Women (NCW) reported a sudden surge in cases of domestic violence, and the NCW footnote was jarring. Most new cases were not related to dowry-demands and the like but involved physical abuse by husbands who had not had access to alcohol for days. Pushed to the wall, some states such as Kerala outlined plans to provide liquor to severe addicts on the production of a doctor's prescription. But the state High Court shot the proposal down and stayed the matter for a week.

Excise officials of various states such as Kerala are now on standby for instructions from their state governments on when to open up the vends. As one of these excise officials admitted on the condition of not being named, "In the time of Coronavirus, spending on food distribution, containment and sanitation are at an all-time high and these were not budgeted for. But excise inflows were part of budgetary calculations — a dip in these receivables is a double-whammy for all states, with coffers close to running dry."

Recent reports disclose that the Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) sector pays well over Rs 1 lakh crore in excise and other duties annually to the Government. Equally important, direct and indirect employment is provided to over 10 million people countrywide, including over 4 million farmers. Liquor manufacturers also support ancillary industries such as bottles, plastic and paper, with a turnover of over Rs 5,000 crore.

Clearly, the liquor sector, akin to others in the organised business space, is a vital part of Indian industry. In a recent article, the Confederation of Indian Alcoholic Beverage Companies wrote that revenues from liquor sales are a major part of the Government's tax collections. These enable the State to finance several public welfare schemes, especially in times of national emergency, such as we are facing now. The absence of these revenues severely impacts the Government's ability to run public welfare and alleviation programs. And the sardonic yet indelible truth is that this is an industry segment that does not see downturns. In fact, this sector thrives in bad times.

History is witness to the fact that whenever any state resorts to the prohibition for political, cultural or other reasons, it always comes out the loser. The United States is a classic example. When the US opted for prohibition in 1920, the intent was to wean out alcohol's evils in society, such as family violence and political corruption. The actual result was quite the opposite. An alternate, illicit industry was born, black market sales hit new highs, the Government lost huge revenues and corruption amongst law-enforcers soared, with the latter becoming the henchmen of a fast-growing mafia. Indian states such as Haryana, which flirted with the same concept around two decades back, ended up with similar results and nearly went bankrupt.

Today, history is repeating itself, even in just the first 10-12 days of the COVID-19 national lockdown. Over the last week, the Maharashtra Police has been scratching its head over unexplained and never-before theft of IMFL stocks from liquor vends, pubs and bars in the state, including the highly-policed city of Mumbai, India's financial capital. Overnight, tens of cases of liquor stocks are repeatedly being found missing, come the morning. Things stay subdued for a couple of days, and the thefts resume.

Other states are witnessing similar incidents. At the Chhattisgarh State Beverage Corporation Limited's godown in Siltara, Raipur, there is a long line of truckers waiting for their cargo to be unloaded and locked away. The cargo is IMFL and beer — lots and lots of it. Too much of it, perhaps, for a country under lockdown and temporary prohibition. For the scores of truckers stuck here for weeks now, night-time is one of immense peril. As Ravinder Pal Singh, a trucker from Jammu and Kashmir, explains: "We have been here for well over a week, with our truck-loads of liquor. Every night, we sit on top of our trucks with sticks and stones because every night, goons land up here, threaten us and scoot off with 10-12 cases of liquor. There is no security. We have no food. We can't leave and we are scared to stay on. All this liquor in these dry days is attracting these goons like bees to honey. And the word is spreading…"

Let's face facts. It is an open secret that liquor is available across all parts of the country even today in the black market. What the lockdown and the resultant limited mobility has done is push prices up to very high levels, in many cases 4-5 times the market price. Plus, we now have the danger of spurious stuff being hurled down very parched throats. The truth is alcohol consumption is increasing in India each year. The number of non-drinkers has been falling and more women are taking to drinking. As per a study published in the Lancet journal, liquor consumption per adult per year went up by 38 per cent between 2010 and 2017, from 4.3 litres to 5.9 litres. That's a hefty figure, given that throughout the period under review, India had an adult population of over 50 crores.

The need of the hour, then, is to pay obeisance to ground realities, including the fact that liberalisation and opening up of the market does not just impact the economy, it impacts cultures and lifestyles as well. India has been impacted too. And not in a bad way. Every drinker is not a drunkard. Depriving a majority due to an errant few is not the solution, especially when it deprives the country of thousands of crores in levies and taxes at a time when these funds can be used to battle the COVID-19 scourge. Much as stock-brokers are allowed to function on Dalal Street, liquor vends can also be re-opened in a careful, systematic, even restricted manner.

Or, as some states are thinking out aloud, India could take liquor sales online for a while, to avoid queues and mayhem outside shops and to ensure that social distancing norms are not blunted in these dangerous times. Deliveries to the homestead, for a fee, will not only ensure all-round access for people and revenue generation for the State but it will also provide a livelihood to people in the thousands.

As Bollywood legend Rishi Kapoor tweeted last week, it will also kill the black market and "not add depression to frustration". Food for thought that…

Views expressed are strictly personal

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