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The rhino's dry run
Guwahati has perhaps the highest concentration of bars and wine shops in the country. But all that has changed thanks to a rather befuddling move.
Tipplers in Guwahati have little to cheer about these days. In early August, the Gauhati High Court closed down all the 128 bars and 303 wine shops in the city citing a government rule that bars such establishments within a 500-metre radius of educational institutions, places of worship, healthcare facilities and courts.
That had sent thousands of residents rushing to the state's border with Meghalaya in the city's southern outskirts to get their favourite tipple and resulted in an estimated revenue loss of Rs 30 lakh a day for the excise department. Though the court modified its order last week allowing only those liquor establishments that had got their licences before March 2000 to open, most of the city's bars and a third of the wine shops remain closed, angering lovers of Bacchus in the city, besides putting at risk the jobs of an estimated 2, 000 people working in these bars and wine shops. And, of course, causing a revenue loss of at least Rs 15 lakh a day.
The 500-metre rule was brought in through an amendment of the Assam Excise Act, 1910, in 2005. "Till that time, the excise Act stated that bars and wine shops shouldn't be allowed within a reasonable distance of educational institutions, hospitals and nursing homes, places of worship and courts. The 2005 amendment quantified this distance at 500 metres. But by then, almost all the existing bars and wine shops had come up. And if this rule is to be followed, no bar or wine shop can exist in the city and even the entire state. It is an unfair rule and has to be amended immediately, " says Susanta Kumar Roy, head of the All Assam IMFL (Indian Made Foreign Liquor) Retailers' Association. Others argue that this rule is devoid of logic. "Why 500 metres? And what is the logic behind disallowing bars and wine shops within a 500-metre radius of courts and hospitals? Also, if a student wants to drink or buy a bottle of liquor, won't he travel beyond 500 metres to do so?" asks Rajib Mahanta, who has started an online campaign against this rule on a social networking site. But the moral brigade, which has been clamouring for a clampdown on bars and wine shops since they started mushrooming in Assam from the late 1990s, is happy. The Congress government under the then CM Hiteswar Saikia started doling out liquor licences liberally to Ulfa militants who had surrendered as part of their rehabilitation package. As a result, this city of 10. 5 lakh has perhaps the highest concentration of bars and wine shops in the country. "Liquor consumption went up phenomenally since then and it has become a real menace, extracting a huge social cost. A large section of youngsters, even school-going kids, have started drinking. Alcoholism has increased and is posing a grave threat to society. We welcome the High Court verdict and want it to be extended to the entire state, " says social activist Premlata Sarma.
But the state government isn't amused, and understandably so: Assam earned Rs 296 crore from liquor sales last year. Excise department figures show that consumption of liquor has been rising, perhaps alarmingly, over the years - the state's revenue from liquor sales stood at Rs 177 crore in 2008 and rose by nearly 70 per cent in three years. The state government finds itself in a dilemma: it doesn't want to risk criticism from its political opponents and civil society by amending the 500-metre rule but, at the same time, can't afford to lose such a large chunk of revenue.
The High Court order, ironically, came on a petition filed by the owner of a bar which was ordered to close down in March this year by the Kamrup (Metro) administration - Guwahati is designated as this district - owing to "public complaints of nuisance by drunken revellers". The owner of the bar had challenged the order.
Last week, Justice Ujjwal Bhuyan modified his earlier order when it was brought to his notice that a two-judge bench hearing a PIL against mushrooming of bars and wine shops in the state had declined in March 13, 2000 to intervene on government policy. "That's why the Court said that only those bars and wine shops that were issued licences after that date would have to remain closed, " says Kamrup (Metro) excise superintendent A K Bayan.
Mahanta and Roy argue that the ban has only encouraged bootlegging. "Those who drink are continuing to do so. Only, they're getting their alcohol from bootleggers or from Meghalaya, " said Roy. Bayan's men have been keeping a vigil on the state's border with Meghalaya (where, incidentally, liquor is much cheaper ) to nab anyone bringing in more than the permissible (under Assam's excise laws) 12 bottles of IMFL into the state. "We have been confiscating many cases of liquor every day, " he says. The retailers of course are hoping for a favourable verdict when the case comes up for hearing on September 10 next.
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