If the changes in the excise policy on liquor announced by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Himachal Pradesh are a pointer, then it suggests that the government intends to turn people into alcoholics. For, the amendments brought out in the 2019 policy suggest that the state government intends to earn higher revenue by coercing hotel and bar owners to sell more liquor, which, in turn, means luring local people and tourists to consume more alcohol.
Hotel and bar owners in the state have been issued a dictum by the excise department in Himachal Pradesh to lift a minimum quota of 12 bottles every day. In case they fail to sell a minimum of 12 bottles, which is approximately 156 pegs per day, then they may have to pay a penalty, which could even mean losing their license.
If previous years’ consumption of liquor in Himachal is taken into account, then bar and hotel owners are bound to be penalised under the new policy. In 2013-14, the minimum guaranteed quota for bars was 148 cases for the year, and for hotels with 10-30 rooms, it was 72 cases. Interestingly, all bars and hotels in the state were unable to sell the minimum required quota of liquor to the public in 2013-14. Despite that, the BJP government increased the minimum quota, in a bid to coerce bar owners and hoteliers to allure people into buying and drinking more alcohol. The new policy of minimum 12 bottles every day tantamounts to a minimum 375 cases a year (2,500 proof litres of alcohol), which is almost double the quantity in 2013-14, which, too, could not be lifted.
The state’s hotel and bar owners have had to pay a penalty of nearly Rs 20,000 -Rs 30,000 in the past and now, with the new increase in minimum offload, they stand to get crushed. As a result, they have threatened to shut down their bars if the government does not review or withdraw its policy.
It is ironic that the BJP government, which projects itself as a crusader against alcohol abuse, has such a policy that will directly impact the people by egging them to drink more. This is sheer duality in what is being practiced and what is preached.
One way to increase the alcohol consumption is through selling adulterated liquor, which reportedly gives a greater kick. In the past, there have been complaints that liquor bought from the Army canteen and from liquor vends, especially in Shimla, under the same brand, not just tastes different, but also induces the person who bought it from the private vend to drink more frequently. There is now a danger of this becoming a routine as liquor vends, bars and hotels will be forced to sell adulterated liquor to ensure that a person becomes a frequent buyer. In sum, what BJP’s policy will do is encourage people to become alcoholic.
The minimum quota norm has another rider. To ensure that liquor is sold in large numbers to consumers, a majority of whom are youth, the bar and hotel associations will also be forced to ensure a home delivery mechanism. This was witnessed in Shimla even in the past. The sheer availability of liquor at the doorstep makes a consumer buy more and finally land into the category of being an addict. If one has to buy from the bar or consume alcohol in a hotel, then the frequency of consumption is generally lower.
Data collected by a civil society organisation- YES (Youth Enlightening Society), shows that already over 55% youth in Himachal Pradesh are into ‘substance’ abuse, out of which 50% regularly consume alcohol.
The Supreme Court, in a recent judgement, had ordered shutting down of liquor vends on national highways or be located at least 500 metres away. This was done to ensure that drunken driving, which is mostly fatal, is checked. The logic behind not having liquor vends on highways was that mere sight of a vend could induce the driver to buy alcohol, which would be then be consumed while driving. Unfortunately, the excise policy of the state has been unable to grasp the basic spirit of such an order.
Many state governments have banned sale of liquor. Bihar is the latest. The Himachal Pradesh government needs to realise that there are other major ways to generate revenue than providing slow poison to people. The government must review the policy and ensure that liquor is not consumed through persuasion.
The writer is former Deputy Mayor of Shimla. The views are personal.