People lined up outside a liquor shop in the outskirts of Chennai on May 7, 2020
People lined up outside a liquor shop in the outskirts of Chennai on May 7, 2020

Maharashtra returned to lockdown after booze shops in Mumbai, Pune, Nagpur, Aurangabad were once again shut after partial lifting of the lockdown 3.0. This was because no social distancing was maintained in the huge queues clamouring to buy liquor despite the 70 per cent hike in rates in Mumbai and Delhi. Taking a cue from Delhi, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh also hiked their liquor prices. Some people throughout the country woke up at 3.30 a.m. to stand in these long queues before sunrise so they could secure their quota of liquor.

A person from Chander Nagar in Delhi threw rose petals on the tipplers – a large number of them without masks and standing close to each other – shouting these tipplers had to be congratulated for being one of the only sources of revenue for the depleted state coffers.

The Bombay Shops and Establishments Act, 1948 is an obsolete legislation like the Bombay Police Act, 1951. Both are obsolete legislations which were enacted before Maharashtra and Gujarat were carved out of the erstwhile Bombay Presidency, 1961.

So, individual states profit by keeping liquor shops open because it is solely these individual states whose coffers are filled by excise revenue. Needless to say, the post of an excise inspector is lucrative and aspirants are not averse to shelling out a few lakhs to the minister through a layer of intermediaries to get selected for these posts.

Nearly all religions forbid alcohol. Hinduism is no exception because the Garuda Purana forbids drinking of fiery substances such as alcohol and equates such acts on par with murder and adultery. Hindu women will be forced to drink molten iron while Hindu men will be forced to drink liquid lava for each alcoholic drink they sipped on earth, according to the Garuda Purana. Undeterred by such horrific punishments in the afterlife, men refused to observe social distancing while patiently waiting in serpentine queues for alcohol in Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Hyderabad and other cities.

Whether it is Buddhism or Jainism, all eastern religions forbid alcohol. But different states in India have different laws for tipplers because alcohol is placed on the state list on the seventh schedule of the Constitution.

Unlike the USA where the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th Amendment of their Constitution which forbade alcohol in that country, India has never had a Constitutional amendment to impose prohibition throughout India — a utopian Gandhian ideal. When imposed by the late Morarji Desai on Bombay Presidency (as it then was), it proved to be an unmitigated disaster.

Each state has enacted a separate Shops and Establishments Act so that the revenue earned from sale of alcohol goes entirely into state coffers and not to the Central government. Excise is the third largest revenue generator for Maharashtra alone after SGST and stamp duty. Last fiscal, Maharashtra earned a whopping Rs. 16,400 crore. But the lockdown in March and April saw revenue losses of Rs 600 crore and Rs 1200 crore respectively. So, it joined other states to allow liquor shops to open.

So, never mind that 10,000 people have been affected by the COVID-19 virus in Mumbai city alone, the Maharashtra government raked in Rs. 11 crore by way of excise duty in a single day while its total revenue touched Rs. 61 crore in liquor sales. Social distancing be damned in Mumbai because liquor replaced milk and bread as seen by the long queues between the lower class labourers and salaried middle class who chose to splurge on booze instead of blowing a fuse pining for their beer or brandy at home.

Karnataka which confirmed nearly 659 COVID-19 cases with 28 deaths as of Thursday, earned Rs. 45 crore in a single day by way of excise duty while UP earned Rs. 100 crore in a single day. UP had 2859 confirmed COVID-19 cases but there may be a spike after the long queues in Lucknow, Kanpur and other towns to buy liquor.

Ironically, the directive principles of state policy are non-justiciable. Article 47 specifically enjoins all the states to introduce prohibition of alcohol consumption (except for medicinal purposes) and also harmful drugs like LSD or charas. But the few states which did introduce prohibition reversed it because they could not allow this revenue source to dry up.

Today, only Bihar, Gujarat, Mizoram and Nagaland with the Lakshadweep islands have continued total prohibition. The judiciary cannot strike down a law imposing prohibition on sale and consumption of liquor which is in line with Article 47. But like Goa which refuses to ban offshore casinos which pays thousands of crores to the state exchequer apart from a few hundred crores paid as bribes to corrupt ministers and a few former chief ministers, the Indian Parliament has consistently refused to introduce a Constitutional amendment imposing prohibition throughout the country.

So, we have a situation where BJP ministers declaim from the rooftops that the Public Health Act can be invoked with Sec 144 of the CrPC to ensure the lives of the people are protected. But the harsh reality is the converse.

Maharashtra leads the other states with 14,541 confirmed COVID-19 cases while Delhi comes third with 4898 cases. But undeterred, liquor addicts who prefer death to being deprived of booze, proudly proclaim: Alcohol is our life. Forget our livers. Liquor makes us forget life, wife and our livers.

The writer holds a Ph.D in Media Law and is a journalist-cum-lawyer of the Bombay High Court.

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