One of the joys of reading many newspapers – I get five every morning – is to find, every once in a while, an article that makes me laugh out loud. Anything that can alleviate the gloomy mood brought on by the pandemic is welcome. These various facts generally reveal the inanities of the administration. A few days ago, the administration of Uttar Pradesh released a gem, announcing “new rules for obtaining personal home bar licenses”. Apparently, a citizen of this blind state can only keep four bottles of alcohol of 750 ml each, two of foreign-made alcohol and two of Indian alcohol, without a license. For more than that, the person needs a “home bar license”. This license allows him to keep up to 72 bottles at home. The purpose of the new rule, stressed RB Singh, excise officer for Gautam Buddha Nagar district, was “not to harass anyone but to provide legal recognition to those who like to maintain a personal bar at home. “.
Truly? I am a little confused. Even a moderate drinker, especially if they are entertaining a bit at home, are required to keep more than four bottles at all times. Does that mean he has to maintain a “bar” at home and therefore has to apply for a “bar license”? Plus, no one wants to have to constantly go to a liquor store. He’ll buy enough alcohol to last for a while, which probably means buying more than four bottles at a time. The excise officer claims that the purpose of the new rule is not to “harass anyone”. But that is precisely what he could easily do. Laws and rules must make sense, not provide authorities with the means to extort or create fear.
It’s getting worse. Guess what are the annual license fees and “security deposit” for a “personal bar”? An exorbitant Rs12,000 and a staggering Rs51,000, respectively! It’s scandalous. An ordinary law-abiding citizen, who enjoys his drink and occasionally invites friends over for drinks, is practically forced to obtain an extremely expensive “bar license”. If he doesn’t, he could be searched, and if he has more than four bottles, will he be put behind bars and fined? The news item does not mention the fine or the prison sentence, but it is necessarily quite steep. Indeed, the offender is treated as if he actually owns a bar and restaurant which charges customers for food and drinks. Frankly ridiculous!
The excise officer was also asked whether the new rules would apply to military personnel, serving or retired, as they are entitled to more than the stipulated four bottles of alcohol per month. The UP authorities had obviously not given it any thought, so the excise officer was unable to give a satisfactory answer. However, his clarification on who could apply for a “personal bar license” was quite bizarre: can apply for a license. Can you repeat? Will those who want that “bar license” have to produce five years of IT returns, and why should their required panel be less than 20%? Answers please.
But it’s not just the UP government that has gotten stupid when it comes to alcohol. When I took my first job in Bombay, as it was then called, in the 1960s, “prohibition” was in effect. But there was a loophole. If you had a medical certificate attesting that you were “an alcoholic” who, for health reasons, could not do without it, you could go to the authorities and obtain a certain number of “units” (bottles of alcohol). per month. (I was given four). Needless to say, you’ve never been to a doctor, but you could get the certificate after paying a bribe to the tout (who told me some of the money was going “up to Mountain peak “). Many Bombayites did so, so they could drink legally in their homes, while others went to illegal and illegal “aunt” bars, as they were then labeled. The ban has disappeared from Maharashtra, but some of its legacies remain. You still need a “license” to buy alcohol, although most liquor stores sell alcohol without you having to produce it. However, they won’t give you a receipt, thus adding to the black economy. In addition, you cannot transport alcohol without a license. Thus, any person returning from abroad, who buys the legally authorized quantity in the duty free shop, as soon as he leaves the airport can be arrested if he does not have a “permit”! Stupid, isn’t it?
In fact, stupidity permeates the entire government’s attitude towards alcohol. Low-alcohol drinks, such as beer or wine, are taxed more heavily than high-alcohol spirits. Foreign tourists generally prefer wine and beer to spirits. But they find wine and beer too expensive in India. The vineyards generate employment for farmers and large areas of Maharashtra and Karnataka have ideal climate and soil quality to grow the variety of grapes that make decent quality wine. Give them incentives, instead of taxing them so heavily. In most countries, wine and beer can be served in restaurants and sold in stores without a liquor license. Not in India.
Most great men have their weaknesses. The Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, had two: his opinions on sex and on alcohol. The American era of “prohibition”, based largely on the same puritanical views of the Mahatma, taught the American government that banning alcohol did not work. It has only created corruption and crime. We have yet to learn this lesson.
– The writer is a seasoned journalist