Above: Police officials destroy seized illegal liquor stock in Ahmedabad/Photo: UNI
For the first time, the Gujarat High Court has issued a notice to the state government on petitions seeking not the repeal of prohibition but the right to drink in privacy
By RK Misra in Gandhinagar
Gujarat was born dry on May 1, 1960, and remains so to this day. At least officially. The situation on the ground tells a different story. Every 50 seconds, a bottle of liquor is seized somewhere in the state.
In 2018, 6,05,797 bottles of Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) were seized from 32 border checkposts across the state, the Gujarat government informed the assembly in February 2019. And no prizes for guessing the numbers that got through.
According to figures presented in the assembly by Chief Minister Vijay Rupani—who is also the prohibition minister—the state government seized 4,69,270 bottles of IMFL and 1,09,487 litres of country liquor in raids on illegal liquor dens in the last five years. Those in the know, however, say this is merely the tip of the iceberg.
Thus it came as no surprise when five petitions were filed before the Gujarat High Court challenging prohibition laws in the state. The argument raised was that the government can’t curtail the right to consume alcohol as it had been defined as a “food” under the Food Safety and Standards Act.
The petitions also contended that people had the right to consume liquor in their houses under the right to privacy as per the verdict issued by the Supreme Court last September.
Among the petitions was an online petition addressed to Rupani and Minister of State for Prohibition and Excise Pradipsinh Jadeja, calling for a constructive dialogue to amend the prohibition policy. It received over 3,500 signatures in a single day. The petition did not challenge prohibition law in entirety but only the ban on consumption of liquor at home or in private places.
The matter came up for hearing on February 22 before a bench comprising Acting Chief Justice AS Dave and Justice Biren Vaishnav. After arguments, the Court issued notice to the state government and the advocate general of the state.
Significantly, it was the first time that the Court had issued such a notice. Earlier, it had confined itself to asking the government to clarify its stand on similar petitions in the past. The next hearing will be on March 28.
According to the Magnitude of Substance Use in India 2019 report by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment and the National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, Gujarat tops the dry states in alcohol dependence. Thirty percent of those consuming alcohol in Gujarat are, reportedly, dependent.
In other dry states, it is 20 percent in Nagaland, 17 percent in Manipur and 16 percent in Bihar.
The prevalence of those who have “ever” consumed liquor in Bihar, a state which came under prohibition in 2016, was only 7.4 percent as against 8.1 percent in Gujarat which has been dry since its inception.
The legal sale of liquor in Gujarat has gone up from 51.03 lakh litres in 2011-12 to 3.33 crore litres in 2017-18, according to RTI data, with visitors and foreign tourists accounting for 86 percent of the 3.65 lakh liquor permits issued during this period. Surat consumed the maximum liquor, followed by Ahmedabad, Vadodara and Kutch. Ahmedabad legally consumed 74.14 lakh litres of liquor over the past six years, as revealed by the RTI data.
Based on these figures, it would not be too difficult to hazard a guess at the actual liquor consumption in the state.
The Gujarat government in its memorandum submitted to the 15th Finance Commission in July 2018 sought compensation for the revenue loss of Rs 9,864 crore annually due to prohibition. But the state oozes liquor from every pore of its geographical frame. And in doing so, fuels a multi-crore wholly illegal cottage industry that would outstrip a large corporate entity in annual turnover.
Consumption or possession of liquor without a valid permit is a non-bailable offence in the state. A person arrested on either of the two counts cannot be released by the cop. He or she has to be produced in a court and can be released on bail only at its discretion.
The procedure for providing tourist permits for liquor consumption was considerably liberalised under Chief Minister Narendra Modi. This was done to encourage tourism and make the state an attractive business destination.
Permits on arrival are now available for those coming from outside the state, including group permits for business meets and conferences.
There are over 61,000 permit holders in the state and the average daily consumption of alcohol by them is put at around Rs 75 lakh per day.
Interestingly, it was during Modi’s tenure as chief minister that the state passed a bill in the assembly. The bill proposed that a bootlegger can even be awarded death penalty.
This was a sequel to the death of over 150 people who had consumed spurious liquor in Ahmedabad in July 2009. However, the death penalty option has not been used till date.
Liquor continues to be a lucrative business in the state, and according to one estimate, it has a Rs 30,000-crore annual turnover—a wholly clandestine industry brewing unadulterated black money.
It has three components. At the bottom of the ladder is the poor man’s drink—hooch or “lattha” as they call it in Gujarat. The middle level comprises “desi”, the preferred variant of rural Gujarat and at the top rung is brewery liquor (rum, whisky, gin, vodka, etc).
With a consumer base of the middle, upper-middle and rich classes in cities and towns and a comparative affluent class in rural areas, IMFL holds sway. Country liquor is a cottage industry but brewery liquor flows into the state from Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Diu and Daman, and, for the last few years, even from Punjab and Haryana.
The turnover of the cumulative illicit liquor trade in Ahmedabad alone is over Rs 1,500 crore per annum. Out of these, around one-fourth goes, by conservative estimate, to the police. To piece together a state-wide scenario, Surat district alone guzzles 50,000 litres per day and almost 70 percent of the 18,000-plus villages in the state brew their own “desi”.
No bootlegging business can be run without police cooperation. There is elaborate negotiation before a bootlegger is allowed to operate a “point”.
For a “public point”, however, the bootlegger needs to cough up Rs 1 crore per year or Rs 10 lakh a month. This is for brewery liquor.
There are 50 such “points” and an equal number of lesser “points” in Ahmedabad alone.
Over 60 percent of the amount goes to the police station inspector and the remaining is divided among other branches of the trade. In the case of an average hooch joint with moderate sales, the hafta varies between Rs 2 lakh and Rs 4 lakh per month.
There is occasional talk of doing away with prohibition in the state but the fact remains that no political party or chief minister can dare to do so.
The popular perception is that Gujarat is generally safe because there is prohibition. “You can see women and girls moving around unescorted in towns and cities of the state well into the night. Can you say the same for north Indian cities or for that matter even the country’s capital, Delhi,” points out a retired bureaucrat, adding, ”yes, it is available in abundance but you drink and quietly go to sleep. You misbehave and see the consequences.”
The ex-babu has a point: It is a win-win situation for all. The politician and the police get their “piece”, the people their “peace” and the boozer his booze.