Jaipur: Politics over liquor has resurfaced in Rajasthan, this time involving the ‘Gandhian’ Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot.
Gehlot’s predecessor Vasundhara Raje had for long suffered the “8PM, No CM “ barbs, particularly from the Congress. The slogan was a pun on Raje’s alleged inaccessibility through the use of a popular whisky brand name.
But Gehlot, a teetotaller, is also under attack now — over alcohol.
He has been accused of attempting to promote the use of liquor in the state, which has forced him to withdraw a controversial government notification that would have opened the floodgates for pubs and bars in residential colonies.
At the heart of the controversy is the notification that the chief minister approved on 5 December, easing norms for the opening of liquor outlets.
The notification had removed the need for a permanent liquor license and allowed hotels and bars to be opened on 30ft wide roads. It had also done away with the clause that a property had to be converted into a commercial enterprise to run the business and the need to submit a layout plan of the hotel.
On 1 January, the finance department notified two new rules to 3A and 3C of the Rajasthan Excise Hotel Bar License Rules, 1973, and the Rajasthan Excise Restaurant Bar License Rules, 2004.
It sparked an outcry, putting the Congress government in the state on the defensive. It also prompted the chief minister to issue a statement, in which he reminded the state that he had imposed the 8 pm limit on liquor in his earlier tenure.
“The state government is committed to better health for the citizens and to keep the youth away from intoxication. We had imposed an 8 pm time limit for liquor shops and banned e-cigarette hookah bars,” the CM said in a statement on 10 January after withdrawing the notification.
The row has hit the chief minister who has carefully cultivated an image of a firm believer in Gandhian values and one who strongly dislikes liquor.
In his previous stint, he had not only limited the timings of liquor shops, he had even amended the Rajasthan Civil Services (Conduct Rules), 1971, to credit half the salary of any state government employee who is a habitual drinker to their spouse’s account.
Outcry that prompted notification withdrawal
The government’s notification sparked a backlash from social activists and the opposition BJP.
Social worker Pooja Chabra, whose father, former MLA Gurusharan Chabra, lost his life in 2015 while he was on a hunger strike demanding ban on liquor in the state, raised the issue on 10 January, the day the order was withdrawn. It was during a meeting with a high-powered committee of three cabinet ministers to study the demand for Prohibition in the state.
She had also threatened to restart the agitation that her father had spearheaded. “Instead of moving towards Prohibition, the state government was going to promote liquor consumption. The new rules would facilitate bars in residential colonies,” she told ThePrint.
Critics said the new rules, especially the permission on 30ft roads, would allow the opening of bars in residential colonies. In Rajasthan, 30ft roads are mostly in colonies as main roads are all over 40ft wide. Under the earlier rules, bars were allowed to operate only on main roads that were 60 or 80 ft wide.
The new rules also allowed licenses for selling liquor in a restaurant with a seating capacity of 50 on a non- commercial plot measuring 125 square yards.
It further eased norms allowing for seasonal licenses for just six months instead of a permanent one; the provision would have reduced costs thus making it easier to set up a bar.
One had to pay only 75 per cent of the total license fee for the first six months and the remaining 25 per cent at the time of renewal.
The BJP also accused the chief minister of being unmindful of people’s health and safety. “Bars would have mushroomed all over if this order was implemented with the potential to disturb law and order,” state BJP chief Satish Poonia said.
He also called the chief minister a hypocrite who talks about believing in Gandhian values and sends a team to study Prohibition in Bihar but acts contrary to his moves.
Cabinet minister Dr. B D Kalla, who heads the high-powered committee on Prohibition, however clarified that the clause for a 30ft road was meant for foreign tourists who visit heritage hotels, many of which are located on narrow roads.
The state government though is in no mood to impose Prohibition. Kalla said that Prohibition has proved to be ineffective as despite a ban, liquor is freely available in Gujarat and Bihar.
Move prompted by dire financial state
The move, however, appears to have sparked by the state’s dire finances. The government has not been able to pay salaries on time and the five per cent dearness allowance (DA) announced in July has not been paid even as the next DA is due this month.
According to the chief minister, the state is staring at a shortfall of around Rs 7000 crore of its share in central taxes and grants. It has received Rs 17101.47 crore as its share in central taxes in the 2018-19 fiscal, compared to the Rs 17708.23 crore it got in the previous financial year.
The state’s own tax revenue has shown a marginal uptick. The buoyancy in revenue receipt has fallen drastically to 0.23 from 2.01 in the previous year.
The excise income is the second largest contributor to the state’s own tax revenue after GST. The state has earned Rs 5,386 crore from liquor sale against the target of Rs 10,500 crore in the current financial year. The target is 20 per cent more than previous year’s income of Rs 8,694 crore.
The excise department had expected a five-fold increase in the number of bar licenses after the new rules.
Former industry minister Rajpal Singh Shekhawat said that after the GST came into effect, the state government has no other avenues to increase revenue except VAT on petrol and diesel and excise tax. “But this doesn’t mean the government would convert the state into a maykhana to generate revenue. It would have serious repercussions for law and order,” the former minister said.