Chandigarh: Despite calls to deal with the rampant consumption of intoxicants in the state, the Punjab government has instead gone ahead and reduced the price of country-made liquor by Rs 20 per bottle, a move which has the opposition up in arms. Coming at a time when the government should be discouraging drinking, particularly among the poorer sections that are also exposed to the problem of narcotics, it has actually made an already alarming situation worse.
The decision was announced in the new excise policy of the Punjab government for the year 2015-16. Under the new policy, while the price of country-made liquor goes down, the price of the Indian-made foreign liquor (IMFL) will increase by Rs 5.50. Beer prices will remain unchanged in the next fiscal.
The government has also ensured that residents of Punjabi get liquor that has higher potency. It has introduced a new category of country-made liquor with a potency of 75 percent while the alcohol content was earlier 50 to 65 percent.
Punjab’s economy has been in the doldrums for long and it badly needs to increase its revenue collection. That it is depending on cheap liquor to garner more revenue is rather sad.
According to sources, the reduction in the price of country liquor is aimed at attracting liquor contractors. The Punjab Excise and Taxation Department, which collected Rs 4,680 crore in the current year, hopes to collect Rs 5,040 crore in the next financial year 2015-16 through the sale of liquor.
There are around 8,000 licensed liquor shops in Punjab but there are many unauthorized liquor stores in the city. Many villages too have illegal liquor shops. The government tends to be lenient towards unauthorized outlets due to rampant corruption. In several villages, especially in the border areas of Punjab, distilling of alcohol is a cottage industry and is the principal source of income for many families.
The palms of concerned officials or policemen are greased to keep them silent, social activist Prabjit Singh told Firstpost.
A recent study showed that consumption of liquor in Punjab increased by almost 60 per cent between 2007 and 2012 and most new addicts were found to be among the youth, and in the age group of 15 to 35. There is hardly a family in the rural areas of Punjab where one or the other member is not indulging in liquor or drug abuse. Fatal accidents occur frequently because many drivers, particularly truck drivers, do not drive without first consuming alcohol or some other intoxicant.
Many NGOs have suggested that Punjab should completely ban production and sale of alcohol. But the lack of political will and lure of revenue stops the government from doing so.
Opposition leaders are worried about the fate of the youth as a result of the Punjab government’s decision. Speaking to Firstpost, Manpreet Singh Badal, the former Finance minister of Punjab who had quit the ruling Akali Dal to form the People’s Party of Punjab (PPP), said it was disgusting to see the government promoting intoxication in the state.
Taking a dig at the Akali Dal, he said, “Laashon par economy nahi chalai jaati (you cannot run the economy on the corpses). Punjab, which has the highest per capita consumption of liquor and where drugs and liquor are a deadly problem, is still promoting the sale of liquor.”
“If I was the Finance minister of Punjab, I would have fixed a target of reducing the existing liquor vends in the state by 10 per cent per year. By the end of five years liquor vends would have been reduced in Punjab by 50 per cent. The Punjab government should actively discourage liquor and drugs, not promote them. Liquor rates should be high and their availability made more difficult. No state in the country today, except perhaps Kerala, is as badly affected by intoxication. A whole generation in Punjab has been lost to drugs and liquor. When will the government wake up?” Badal said.
Former Congress MLA, Sukhpal Singh Khaira was also disturbed by the state government’s move.
“Instead of saving people from intoxication, the Punjab government is actively promoting and encouraging the evil. Reducing the prices of country-made liquor is a foolish step and the government will regret later. The government is selling poison to people by slashing its prices,” Khaira said.
Manjit Singh, AAP leader, said the government is leading people to a path of slow, painful death by reducing prices of liquor. It should carry out awareness campaigns against liquor and drugs, instead of facilitating their usage, he said.