MP's liquor policy backfires

Shivraj Singh Chouhan opened up IMFL sale in rural areas a month after declaring eradi-cation of alcoholism.

The Shivraj Singh Chouhan government in Madhya Pradesh has incurred the BJP veterans’ flak for its numerous summersaults over liquor policy. Madhya Pradesh has never been a dry state. But the BJP that keeps claiming a moral high ground on the issue often faces a dilemma over how “wet” sho-uld the state be, especially as its economic well-being is hitched on to the liquor revenue graph.

When he took oath for his thi-rd term in November 2013, Cho-uhan claimed in a passionate speech that he was committed to eradicate alcoholism. His government would allow no new liq-uor outlets. But, he drove his ca-binet to open up the sale of India Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) in rural areas just a month later.

The RSS, the BJP’s mother organisation, objected. So did many party colleagues. The opposition Congress accused Chouhan of “repaying the liquor mafia for bankrolling the BJP’s campaign.”

Chouhan stayed firm for some time but later, buckled under pressure. At the party executive meeting in Bhopal he said, “The cabinet did this to prevent the sale of spurious liquor. There is unauthorised distribution of IMFL in villages where people buy country liquor. We wanted to stop this by allowing the IMFL sale. But I could not sleep at night. I felt this was not right... This was to bring revenue, but we will find other means of raising revenue.”

The state tried to tweak the excise policy to allow IMFL in outlets located in villages with a population of 5,000. This meant that 250-odd shops selling country liquor would also sell IMFL. The proposal to remove the value added tax on liquor and allow IMFL sale through rural outlets could have helped the state raise Rs 500 crore more as excise revenue. The chief minister had to drop the idea under pressure from the party’s moral police.

Recently, the state government came up with another novel idea to let persons with an annual income of Rs 10 lakh to possess up to 100 bottles of IMFL. The idea apparently was to collect Rs 10,000 each as possession fee from such individuals. But, Chouhan was forced to take another U-turn after the furore in the party.

Finance Minister Jayant Malaiya who had announced the new policy a day earlier, argued that the investment policy of the government was likely to bring many corporate houses to the state and it would become imperative to let the new elite possess more liquor. In any case, many people were already flouting the existing norms of possessing much fewer liquor, the minister had argued. A section of the party and the government felt the policy would not stand legal scrutiny for being elitist and discriminatory.

Besides hurting the party’s righteous image, the move would have afforded the Congress an opportunity to criticise the government. The Shivraj Chouhan government was earlier embarrassed by some strong judicial pronouncements over signing memorandum of understanding with liquor barons on setting up of distilleries in the state.

Court order
However, the government held back the licence for setting up of the units after the agreements were signed. The industrialists expectedly moved the court and got a favourable verdict. The court indicted the government when it appealed against the order which was in favour of the industrialists.

Madhya Pradesh has already earned enough notoriety for winking at bootleggers in the tribal districts of Jhabua and Alirajpur where liquor smuggling to Gujarat has turned into a thriving industry. While the pretence of prohibition in Gujarat is already well-known, the Madhya Pradesh police and excise officials’ complicity in the supply of liquor to that state has not drawn public attention. Liquor shops in these poor tribal-dominated regions were auctioned for hefty sums in 2014-15.

The locals call liquor “amrit” and smuggling goes on unch-ecked through narrow roads connecting villages on the two sides of the border. “Hundreds of enterprising persons earn their livelihood by smuggling liquor to Gujarat,” said a regional transport department official.

Permits that allow transportation of liquor to Daman and Diu through Gujarat also help the bootleggers. Gujarat authorities are as much to blame for the seepages in the prohibition policy in that state which the bootleggers in Madhya Pradesh keep tapping.

There is amusing clash of the ‘key result areas’ of the chief minister and the excise officials that seems to have turned Madhya Pradesh into ‘Madya’ Prad-esh. While the chief minister insists on temperance – at least publicly – the excise department pushes for new liquor shops at regular intervals or for the me-asures like 100 bottles storage to increase the excise revenue?

If the excise department fails to increase revenue it gets hauled up for inefficiency. When new shops are not to be opened, measures like storage of 100 bottles are suggested for additional revenue. Excise happens to be a major source of revenue in spite of the virtuous postures of the ruling party. In 2015-16 the state government is expected to earn about Rs 7800 crore from liquor sales.

(The writer is a senior journalist based in Bhopal)

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