uring lockdown when liquor and cigarette shops were closed, the business of the same went up. Many bar owners and shopkeepers delivered liquor on high demand with high prices. Imagine, if dry cities like Gujarat and Bihar can have flow of alcohol in the states, how can city like Mumbai even imagine that people will not have access to the same. Mumbai, a Covid-19 hotspot, with booze loving people ridiculed all the norms. Somehow the delivery was done to the cravers. Remember, alcohol is one thing which one can buy or bribe even authorities. The nationwide lockdown has also forced tipplers in the city to shell out a lot of money to buy liquor in the black market. Liquor shops had downed their shutters since the nationwide lockdown started on March 25 but their back doors were operational. For instance, a regular whiskey bottle usually available for say Rs 1,000 is sold in the black market for Rs 2,500. A can of beer of a renowned brand which is sold for Rs 100, is now getting sold for Rs 500-600 for a can. A many of my friends told me that they approached their regular vendor for alcohol over the phone, initially they refused but then quoted a higher price of Rs 7,000 for the same alcohol bottle which they used to buy for Rs 3,500 before the lockdown. In spite 50 percent salary, pending car and house loans and many other challenges people purchased liquor because that is the only way out to their stress or is a lifestyle necessity. Finally, one fine morning Government opened the shops to public but due to blatant flouting of social distancing rules, the government was prompted to shut the shops once again. Police baton charged unruly buyers. When cities eased the relentless lockdown last week to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, longest of queues were seen outside liquor shops across the country.
The manic rush was not surprising as the harsh lockdown meant there was a pent-up demand for booze. Rather there have been reports of a spike in alcohol sales around the world: in the UK sales were up by 22% in March and in the US, they have risen 55% compared to the same period last year. Selling alcohol has never been easy in India. E-commerce and home deliveries are not allowed. Many state governments have turned against booze because prohibition is a potential vote winner. Each of the 29 states has its own policies to control the production, price, sale and taxes on booze. By volume, India is the world’s second-largest consumer of alcohol after China, according IWSR Drinks Market Analysis, a London-based research firm. India consumes more than 663 million liters of alcohol, and numbers spiked up by 11% from 2017. The per-capita consumption is rising as India consumes more whiskey than any other country in the world – about three times more than the US, which is the next biggest consumer. Nearly one in every two bottles of whiskey brought around the world is now sold in India. When worldwide booze consumption dipped in 2018, India actually partly drove a 7% uptick in the global whiskey market.
Five southern states – Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala account for more than 45% of all liquor sold in India. Not surprisingly, more than 10% of their revenues come from taxes on liquor sales, according to the research wing of CRISIL, a ratings and analytics firm. Moreover, given the higher number of coronavirus cases in Maharashtra, the industry body said that if the government is unable to open liquor shops, it should at least allow online delivery of alcohol. West Bengal and Meghalaya have already started the online delivery of alcohol. However, wine shop owners have a different say on the online delivery. Online delivery in Maharashtra is not possible, it will create nuisance for the citizens since liquors will be easily available at the door step 24*7 and will be available without official drinking permits where youths would be easily carried away if alcohol deliveries will reach easily at their doorstep.
Taxes from alcohol sales roughly form a quarter of state revenues and is a strong contributor to the economical flow. If this stream suddenly stops, states have to compulsorily cut some important spending. Investors shy away and so do tourists. Eventually, states give up and liquor flows freely again. On 12 April, a video of a young man distributing free whisky to daily-wage workers in Hyderabad went viral on social media. The man, identified simply as Kumar, later told a news agency that he wanted to help out people suffering from alcohol withdrawal symptoms. On 14 April, WHO’s regional office for Europe called for restrictions on alcohol access during the lockdown. “At times of lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, alcohol consumption can exacerbate health vulnerability, risk-taking behaviors, mental health issues and violence,” it said in a press note. But those who are addicted to the lifestyle of having liquor actually suffered more due to non-availability of the same.
In India, alcoholic beverages are classified as “food” under the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006. The lockdown however, has seen liquor vends closed, with the “wine-cellars” in grocery stores stocking alcohol also is off limits. As the country completes what is possibly its first dry month, the unavailability of liquor has had two major repercussions: on health and government revenue. First- the condition of addicts. Nearly 57 million Indians are addicted to alcohol, according to a 2019 study by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). Acute withdrawal symptoms can manifest as seizures, delirium, aggressive behavior and can even be fatal. In the first week of the lockdown, nine people in Kerala who were reportedly addicted to liquor committed suicide. By the second week, six in Tamil Nadu had died after trying to substitute alcohol with after-shaves and varnish. Media reports suggest production of home-made liquor like rice beer or toddy has increased in rural areas while a grey market for bottled liquor has mushroomed in urban areas. Some of them add that bottled alcohol is being sold at twice its rate in parts of Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru.
Second- The states have lost a large chunk of revenue. The alcoholic beverage industry accounts for 15-30% of liquor-selling state’s earnings, according to the International Spirits & Wine Association of India (ISWAI), which represents some of the country’s largest liquor manufacturers. In 2019-20 ISWAI claims, the states earned ₹2.5 trillion in taxes from alcohol sales. In their efforts to get the states to ease restrictions, industry stakeholders argue that liquor tax money can be used to fight the pandemic. But fact is that doing away with alcohol altogether would prove too costly for the economy. With zero turnover, the industry stares at a loss of ₹30,000-40,000 crore, not to discount loss of jobs in manufacturing units, transportation, distribution and retail. While exact employment figures are not available, some states have started feeling the pinch. By the third week of April, West Bengal, Karnataka and Delhi were reportedly considering “partial loosening” of alcohol curbs for immediate revenue generation, some by allowing home delivery. Before any government announces a ban like this, they must inform people in advance. More importantly, enough services should be made available to give the (addicts) treatment. Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown with sudden 4-hour notice which took millions of citizens by surprise. And now this unplanned lockdown has left a huge trail of damage on all fronts and irreparable human losses by all means.
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