Rajat Sharma

Close down liquor shops if crowds do not follow social distancing norms

AKB2610The Coronavirus pandemic graph in India is rising, with the death toll crossing 1600 at 1,688 and the total number of Corona cases inching towards the 50,000 mark. It is presently at 49,333. India recorded the highest surge in the last 24 hours with 3,875 fresh cases. Of course, 12,726 persons have recovered from the virus attack till now due to the efforts of our Corona warriors.

I am giving these scary figures because I want to caution our viewers about the danger that is lurking in our midst. Social distancing norms are being thrown to the winds by thousands of people who are coming out to buy liquor in almost all metros.

There is utter madness prevailing outside most of the liquor shops in cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Bengaluru. Last night, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation ordered indefinite closing of liquor shops in Mumbai in view of the unmanageable crowds.

Most distressing of all are reports about crimes and family quarrels that are taking place after the ban on sale of liquor was lifted. In my prime time show ‘Aaj Ki Baat’, we showed a video from Etawah, UP, where a drunk man quarreled with his wife demanding more money to buy liquor, and in the process, lifted a brick to smash on her head. The man was overpowered, police was called in, and he was taken into custody.

There was another video from UP where a policeman in uniform, in a drunken state, tried to show off his swagger before a crowd waiting outside a liquor shop. The crowd bashed up the policeman and he had to run for his life. The policeman has been suspended and sent to lines. In Bengaluru, there were two liquor-related murders. In both the cases, two men killed their friends after a bout of drinking.

In Banda, UP, two youths shot dead an old man who had objected to drinking liquor. In Baran, Rajasthan, tipplers after consuming liquor resorted to hooliganism on the roads. In Kolkata, there was this strange spectacle of a long queue of tipplers outside a wine shop, and another queue of poor people lining up before a hunger kitchen.

In Nainital, Uttarakhand, there was a long line of tipplers waiting in a queue with umbrellas outside a liquor shop braving thunder, rain and hailstorm. In Jodhpur, Rajasthan, women wearing ‘ghoonghat’ over their heads stood outside liquor shops to buy liquor for their menfolk.

There were protests by women too. In Raipur and Visakhapatnam, women staged protest outside liquor shops demanding reimposition of ban on sale of liquor, citing domestic quarrels.

The common topic being discussed in homes is why the Centre and state governments allowed sale of liquor at a time when the pandemic is yet to subside. The reason is: money. State governments, which have been spending on public welfare for the last 42 days, are now in a precarious financial position.

There is this question: Is public health less important than money? The answer is: both are equally important. Without funds, the state governments cannot carry on the fight against COVID-19 to its logical end.

Let me explain. Apart from GST collections, which the Centre and states share among themselves, liquor and fuel are the two main sources of revenue collection by state governments. Roughly 15-20 per cent of the revenue collection by states comes from liquor.

According to an RBI report, during financial year 2018-19, state governments in India earned Rs 1,50,658 crore from liquor alone. In FY 2019-20 this figure jumped by 16 pc to Rs 1,75,501 crore. Right on top is Uttar Pradesh, which alone collected more than Rs 31,000 crore revenue from alcohol. Clearly, liquor shops are nothing less than ATMs for state governments.

Karnataka comes second. It collected Rs 20,950 crore from liquor in 2019-20. In the third position is Maharashtra, which collected Rs 17,478 crore from liquor. West Bengal earned Rs 11,874 crore, Telangana, where poverty is widespread, collected Rs 10,901 crore and is at fifth place. Punjab, which has the dubious distinction of having a large number of tipplers addicted to their ‘Patiala peg’, earned only Rs 5000 crore from liquor.

There is complete prohibition on sale of liquor in Gujarat and Bihar, while Andhra Pradesh, which had imposed ban on liquor, has resorted to Prohibition Cess and has allowed sale of liquor to earn revenue.

These figures, in a nutshell, explain why the chief ministers pressed on Prime Minister Narendra Modi to agree to lifting ban on sale of liquor in order to fill up their empty coffers.

On the other hand, protests by women over sale of liquor are also justified. The states may be earning revenue from liquor, but alcohol consumption is destroying peaceful life in homes. Imbibing alcohol is an individual’s own choice and it is also understandable that the state governments need money from sale of liquor. But, let us ponder for a moment: what is the price that we are paying for this?

For last 42 days, the same policemen who were preparing food packets for the poor, delivering ration among the weaker sections, tracing underground Tablighi Jamaat members and sending them to quarantine centers, are now being posted outside liquor shops to keep the crowds in orderly queues. The state governments have imposed another burden on the police.

For the last one and a half months, citizens are practically confined to their homes, children are not allowed to go and play in parks, doctors, nurses, police personnel have been away from their families for more than a month, ensuring that we stay in good health and the nation is protected from the pandemic.

There is no vaccine or medicine to cure Coronavirus disease, only social distancing is the easiest means of protection. Liquor shops were permitted only on condition that social distancing norms will be followed and there will be no crowd outside liquor shops. But when people themselves are throwing these norms to the wind, the only option left for the government is to close down liquor shops.

Heavens will not fall if there is shortfall in revenue collections. We cannot allow the pandemic to swamp our population just because the state governments need funds.

Those who are crowding liquor shops are committing a big social sin. They are endangering their own lives, their family members and the community at large. Their sin should not be pardoned just because they are contributing to the state’s coffers. The first punishment that should be meted out to such violators of social distancing norms is: close down the liquor shops till the pandemic subsides.

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