Natasha Dedhia Monday, 11 May 2020

FOR THAT ONE SIP; CORONA WHO?

The beginning of this week saw a large number of Indians welcome ‘relaxed’ lockdown 3.0 in high spirits. And what better way to do it than some alcohol?

Following the easing of restrictions, some of the most striking images on Monday showed long queues outside liquor stores around the country. Even before the shops could raise shutters at 10 am, thirsty citizens rushed to stock up on booze from 8 am, standing in queues on a hot May Monday as if an apocalypse was here. While addiction, habits and longingness pulled them to these stores; the rules, the virus and the worry led people to ask:

Since when is alcohol an essential commodity?

However, it's not just the people who are finally liberated with the alcohol ban lifted. State governments were also beginning to feel the thirst. Not only does the alcohol industry employ nearly a million people, but the ban on it also spelt a loss of almost RS. 30,000 to Rs. 40,000 crore for some states due to lack of sales. The liquor business in lockdown had been suffering all this while.

In reality, manufacture and sale of liquor are one of the major sources of the government's revenue, and their reopening came at a time when the states had been struggling to fill their coffers amid the turmoil on account of the lockdown. Opening liquor shops in lockdown 3.0 was their attempt to heal that unrest.

Generally, states levy excise duty on manufacture and sale of liquor. States also charge special fees on imported foreign liquor; transport fee; and label & brand registration charges. A few states, such as Uttar Pradesh, impose a ’special duty on liquor’.

State excise duties on liquor are the second or third largest contributor to the category State’s Own Tax revenue after GST and at times, petroleum. On an average, the states collected about Rs 15,000 crore per month in 2019-20, which was further expected to surge per month in the current financial year. This projection, before the COVID-19 outbreak, signalled that the liquor business in India had to pull its socks.

Punjab was the first state to seek permission from the Centre for the opening of liquor vendors to shore up revenue collections and aid the Punjab economy. Initially, the Centre rejected their proposal but later allowed all the states to sell liquor. The Punjab government has ordered the opening of liquor vends in the state from May 7, 2020, with a provision to deliver liquor at the doorstep of residents.

After liquor shops allowed customers in Mumbai on May 4 and 5, 2020, 16 lakh litres of liquor helped the state earn more than Rs. 30 crores of excise duty. The rush at the liquor shops during lockdown, forced the Maharashtra state government to impose section 144 in the city of Mumbai until 17 May 2020 and those violating the norms might face up to 6 months in jail. Karnataka has cumulatively made Rs. 242 crores by selling around 42 lakh litres of liquor in 2 days. Long queues were seen in many parts of Bengaluru and other parts of the state where a total of 4,200 stores have been permitted to sell liquor in the state.

The Delhi government, which was set to lose Rs. 645 crore in revenue as liquor shops remained shut for 43 days, imposed a `special corona fee'. This fee was supposed to be 70 % of the Market Retail Price and was absolutely no obstacle for the people. Outside a liquor shop in Delhi, men were virtually sticking to each other in the queue and many of them were seen without facemasks or handkerchiefs to cover their faces. In Chander Nagar of the capital this morning, a man showered flower petals on people standing in the queue outside a liquor shop. "You are the economy of our country, the government does not have any money," he told the people.

Yes, alcohol is not an essential item and there are several arguments that can be made for the ban. But considering that in 2019-2020, states earned almost ₹2.5 trillion in taxes from alcohol sales, there is no denying that lifting the ban was much needed while our economy crumbled under this pandemic. Truly, these people's role in supporting the economy will never be forgotten by the states. However, the crowding at liquor stores across the country and the abject lack of distancing, shows how indifferent the masses are to the corona-risks.

For India to ease the lockdown and fight Covid-19, stricter actions against violation of social distancing are a must. BMC Commissioner Praveen Pardeshi ordered all liquor shops to close in Mumbai until further notice, effective from May 6, 2020. The delivery boys in Punjab would require a curfew pass, ID proof and the vehicle used for delivery would also require permission from the district authorities. While the police had to resort to lathicharge in some areas to ensure social distancing, a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) has been moved in the Delhi High Court by the NGO Civil Safety Council of India against Delhi government’s decision to open liquor shops. The PIL demands immediate closure of liquor shops in Delhi.

When it comes to changing people’s minds or behaviour, shame and blame generally don’t work as well as empathy and benefit of the doubt. While we have every right to try and correct people’s behaviour, it should be done politely and with knowledge-sharing and with positive modelling. It's unsettling that the Delhi Police had to pay an actor to dress up like 'Yamraj' who went door to door, threatening people with their lives, if they didn't practice social distancing. Irrespective of that and forty days of social distancing training, we couldn’t keep people away from the second-most important alcohol-based mixture being sold in the country. (First, of course, is the hand sanitiser.)

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