An ‘essential commodity’, booze shops get special sanctions in U’khand | India News – Times of India

When the lockdown to contain Covid-19 began, Kerala and Punjab were quick to declare alcohol an “essential commodity”. In Kerala, people had killed themselves after being cut off and Punjab was afraid of bootlegging. The Centre had none of it — no exemptions, it said. But last month, Uttarakhand went ahead and did the same. And it has gone all out to protect its revenues from alcohol.
Shops selling groceries, milk, fruits and vegetables stay open 10pm. Liquor stores can stay open till 11pm. Sundays are when other stores are shut for sanitisation. Liquor stores can remain open. So, from 8am every day, the cash registers start ringing. Most stock up on red wine or scotch — Covid-19 cases have been rising in Uttarakhand and there’s no saying when the rules will change again. But for now, it’s been convenient for buyers and a relief for store owners.
“I manage to leave the office only after 9pm. Stores would usually shut by then. Now that they are open for two extra hours, I can pick up my booze on my way home,” said Anshul Badola, a Dehradun resident who works at a private company. Counting on those like Badola is Sanjay Singh, a liquor store owner in the town: “We incurred huge losses during the complete lockdown. The reopening helped, but the extension of timing could help even more.” Another seller, Surjit Singh, said a visible improvement in sales might take a while. “Sales have been down at least 40% since the pre-lockdown period. Now that stores can stay open longer, it should help but our customers need to know first. It could take some time.”
But other store owners are piqued. “Sunday used to be the day when everything was shut so sanitisation could be done. It was meant to break the Covid chain. Only stores selling medicines or groceries would be allowed to open. Now, liquor stores open on Sundays. It’s illogical,” said Narendra Khatri, who runs a groceries store in Dehradun. Some store owners and RWAs have expressed similar reservations, with the same question — why is liquor “essential”?
“It is a tightrope walk. A ban on liquor would lead to bootlegging,” said BJP state spokesperson and Vikasnagar legislator Munna Singh Chauhan. “As a tourism-driven state, banning liquor may affect the sector as well. It’s not that we are opening liquor vends everywhere.” And that’s the answer — revenue.
In 2017, the Trivendra Rawat government had said it would reduce the state’s dependence on alcohol for revenue. “We do not want to promote liquor, we do not want to make it a source of revenue,” Rawat had said. But in the past three years, the government has done just that, with incremental surges. Between the 2016-17 and 2019-20 financial years, revenue from liquor excise went up Rs 1,000 crore. This was not unplanned — the revenue targets went up Rs 1,700 crore in the same period. For the last financial year, the government had set a target of Rs 3,600 crore and made Rs 3,180 crore. It is the state’s biggest source of income.

While the government calls it a matter of urgency, the opposition says it is one of contingency. “In 2017, BJP came to power by campaigning it would ban liquor sale in Uttarakhand,” said vice-president of Congress’s Uttarakhand unit Suryakant Dhasmana. “After coming to power, it seems to have had a change of heart. It has been aggressively promoting liquor sales. So, the decision to keep liquor stores open beyond regular timings does not come as a surprise.”

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