India. Maharashtra may junk archaic permit for boozing

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Is Maharashtra finally bidding adieu to its archaic laws which criminalise consumption of liquor without a drinking permit?

The state excise department has proposed scrapping these requirements when people consume alcohol in licensed premises like permit rooms and beer bars. However, if the proposal is approved, one may still need these permits for purchasing liquor from wine shops or transporting and stocking it at home.

Maharashtra is one of the few states with stringent excise laws where consumption, possession or transport of liquor without a permit issued on “health grounds” is an offence which can be punished with a fine or a jail term depending on its severity.

Officials and stakeholders admit that the enforcement of these “health permits” issued to drinkers for “preservation or maintenance” of health leads to harassment of drinkers by police and state excise personnel, especially those from lower ranks.

“We have sent a proposal to the state government… (Once this proposal is accepted) though consumption permits will be mandatory for keeping liquor at home, it will be scrapped for (those drinking in establishments like) permit rooms,” Vijay Singhal, commissioner, state excise, told dna.

“Age restrictions of 25 years for consumption of hard liquor and 21 years for mild liquor are in place. Then why are individual permits required?” he questioned, adding that if the proposal was accepted, these permits would however be necessary for transporting and consuming liquor at home.

“This is to show if the liquor is for self-consumption or for commercial use,” said Singhal. A permit allows a holder to consume, transport and possess 12 units of liquor.

“Our proposal sent to the state government says no permits will be needed in establishments where on-consumption takes place like permit rooms, beer bars and hotels where people go and drink. This is because these establishments already hold the necessary licenses after paying fees. However, these permits will be needed for off-consumption,” said a senior state excise official.

The official added that the revenue from such permits was negligible though the sale of daily permits for Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL), which can be purchased by drinkers for Rs 5, rises in December due to year-end parties. Those who consume liquor can also hold an annual permit for Rs 100 and lifetime permit for Rs 1,000.

Critics say these permits are prohibition era relics, when wine shops released fixed units of the brew to permit holders on health grounds. Maharashtra saw prohibition being imposed from 1949 till the 1960s, which led to the underworld get into bootlegging in parts of Mumbai and the state. However, restrictions on consumption of liquor were gradually eased over the years though the permit system still continues. In Maharashtra, three districts – Wardha, Gadchiroli and Chandrapur – are under prohibition.

Incidentally, state excise officials admit there are no instances of these individual permits being denied to applicants.

Though the state excise department has been seeking since around 2007 that the permit system be scrapped by amending the Bombay Prohibition Act, 1949, a corrected proposal was dispatched last week. Maharashtra follows a policy of discouraging liquor consumption through a policy of high prices and low sales.

“The permit system is definitely an antiquated one,” noted Randeep Singh of Shah and Company Wines, adding that these “permit Raj era rules” were incongruous in 2016. “This is good for the health of the industry,” he noted, adding that these strict rules led to harassment of those who consumed or purchased liquor without permits.

Social activist Dr Kumar Saptarshi, whose Yuvak Kranti Dal has been involved in anti-liquor campaigns, too admitted that the permit system had failed to curb drinking. “The focus should be on the negative impact of drinking. An addiction is a mental problem and an illness which can be cured,” he said, stressing on the need for a sobriety campaign to help wean people off drinking.