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A small stretch of the highway that connects Assam's capital, Guwahati, to the rest of the Northeast can be called the 'wettest' place on earth. This roughly seven-km stretch of National Highway 37 also forms the boundary between Assam and Meghalaya. One part of the stretch - about 3 km on the Meghalaya side - is dotted with 45 liquor shops and three bars, making this area a really 'wet' place.
The reason for this abnormally high concentration of liquor shops is the significant price difference in alcohol between Assam and Meghalaya. Excise duty on liquor is considerably lower in Meghalaya.
The thousands of vehicles that ply on this stretch provide a stream of thirsty customers to these liquor vends and bars. Many of them have quaint names like Stagger Inn, Quench Bar, Wine Link, Transcend and Cash & Carry.
Thousands of tipplers drive up from Guwahati each day to collect their quota of booze. This wet stretch is on the outskirts of the city, and Guwahati's southeastern extremity of Khanapara is just a few metres away from the first of these shops. A number of state and Central government establishments, including a paramilitary hub, lie on the Assam side of the highway and their employees only need to hop across the road to get their liquor cheap.
The owners of these bars and vends decline to reveal the volume of their sales, but excise department officials in Shillong say that all the 45 liquor shops and three bars in the area do brisk business. "These (liquor outlets) are among the most profitable in the entire state (of Meghalaya), " says a senior excise official.
Meghalaya's gain is, of course, Assam's loss, but there's little the state can do about it. Excise officials in Assam point out that while the price difference in the cheaper brands of Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) is not much, it is the premium spirits that are considerably cheaper in Meghalaya. For instance, a bottle of Jack Daniel's whiskey, which costs Rs 3, 000 in Assam, can be bought for Rs 2, 450 in Meghalaya.
"Many in Guwahati drive up to these shops to get their Black Label or 100 Pipers, which are cheaper by Rs 400 and Rs 200 respectively. If you are buying a few bottles of premium spirits, it makes sense to purchase them from the shops in Meghalaya on Guwahati's outskirts, " admits a senior excise officer in Guwahati who does not want to be named.
It also provides a great opportunity for bootleggers who buy liquor from these shops and cart them to their customers. And with the Assam government reportedly mulling another hike in excise duties, the lure of these liquor shops might become even greater.
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