Liquor bars are witnessing increased violence since the implementation of forced liquor sales. (Photo: Lijumol Joseph/The Quint)
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Did Govt-Forced Liquor Sales Play a Role in B’Luru Mob Harassment?

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  • Excise Officers across Karnataka are forcing liquor bars to serve excessive liquor to customers.
  • The Karnataka Government had issued a regulation in 2003 to force liquor vendors to sell a set quantity of liquor every month.
  • This move was intended for bringing in a larger amount of revenue in the state.
  • This rule violates The Karnataka Excise Act, which regulates business and the liquor trade in the state.
  • Liquor bars are witnessing increased violence since the implementation of such a rule.

On 17 and 28 December, I wrote two letters – one to Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and another to Governor Vajubhai Rudabhai Vala. I was concerned about the excessive sale of liquor in bars across Karnataka.

Did you know that bars across Karnataka are being forced by the government to serve excessive alcohol to their customers?

Like other worried people, if you too have begun to notice more drunkenness on Karnataka streets or homes and more ensuing violence, you should read these letters.

My First letter to the Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, dated 17 December, 2016

Subject: Excise Officers across Karnataka are forcing liquor bars to serve excessive liquor to customers to earn more revenue – a) due to the State Government failing to earn sufficient revenue and b) to bribe Excise Officers and their political masters in the wake of huge personal losses suffered by them due to the November demonetisation; And, coerced liquor bars are witnessing the disastrous consequences of forcing more liquor upon their patrons – more brawls, more violence, more assaults, and cries from distressed and bruised family members.

The public is aware that if a person consumes liquor above a certain quantity, his thought, speech, and action would become impaired; he becomes a menace to himself and the people around him. However, several states allow the sale of liquor in public places. Naturally, all of these states impose a strict prohibition that no liquor should be served to a person who is already drunk or exhibits drunkenness.

The Karnataka Excise Act, 1965 regulates the business and liquor trade in Karnataka. . In fact, this prohibition on serving liquor to a person who is already drunk is the basic condition of every licence issued to any liquor vendor who sells liquor to a customer for consumption under the Karnataka Excise Act, 1965. Any liquor vendor who violates this prohibition invites a jail term besides cancellation of his licence.

Also, liquor vendors know from their own experience that if they do not follow this common-sense rule and serve excessive liquor to their customers, they only invite trouble for their businesses. Drunken customers generally engage in inappropriate or objectionable behaviour and could incite public disorder; extreme situations may lead to property damage and adversely affect their business. Hence, apart from the fear of the law, liquor vendors also see a practical need to abide by the rule to not serve liquor to customers who are already drunk.

Liquor Vendors Forced to Achieve Minimum Sales Targets

However, in a highly regressive and socially damaging move, the Karnataka government had issued a regulation in 2003 to force liquor vendors to sell a minimum quantity of liquor every month to their customers.

Sale of lesser quantity to customers in any month would lead to a massive penalty of Rs 100 for every litre fallen short.

Even an honest liquor vendor who could not sell enough liquor because of reduced demand was compulsorily penalised under this regulation. In order to avoid the penalty, he had to practically force-feed unwilling customers and make them drink more liquor.

To make matters worse, relatively less intoxicating drinks such Wine and Beer were kept out of this regulation; a liquor vendor had to a serve a minimum monthly quantity of only hard liquor to his customers to escape penalty. No bar or liquor retail shop anywhere in the state was spared from this regulation.

Every bar in a city such as Bangalore was required to serve 468 bulk litres of hard liquor every month to its customers; a bar even in a thinly populated area was still required to serve 225 bulk litres of hard liquor every month.

A few bars and restaurants then approached the Hon’ble High Court of Karnataka and straight away argued about the unconstitutionality of this regulation. The fact that this regulation was plainly opposed to the Karnataka Excise Act, 1965 was not even urged then. A learned Single Judge upheld their contention but a Division Bench of the High Court reversed it. This happened in 2005.

However, the Excise Department did not take much time to realise that this regulation was simply impracticable. The State Government too realised that enforcement of this regulation was bound to adversely impact societal health – pressurising a liquor vendor to sell more liquor for public consumption was a sure recipe for public disorder.

Added to it, substantial regulatory modifications were made to the laws in 2006 to allow the Government to take over the network of wholesale distribution of liquor. For these reasons, the regulation was not enforced upon liquor bars though it still existed on paper.

Needless to say that there are several laws in this country that only exist on paper but are not enforced on the ground of impracticability or adverse impact on public. Finally, the state government realised that this regulation does not even deserve to merely remain on paper; this regulation was thrown out in August 2014. That’s not all, however.

U-Turn in 2015

Minds changed in 2015. The Excise Department began to issue demand notices to various liquor bars across Karnataka directing them to pay up penalties due to ‘short consumption’ of liquor in their premises from the year 2006. Yes; demand notices were issued for the past decade on a regulation that had just been thrown out on the grounds of being unreasonable and harmful to public health.

In a number of bars and restaurants in Bangalore, this demand ran into tens of lakhs of rupees. A few bars in Bangalore were seriously pressurised last year. As a result, 31 different bars in Bangalore approached the Hon'ble High Court with a plea that both the regulation and the demand now made was illegal for numerous reasons; the regulation itself had hopelessly violated the Karnataka Excise Act, 1965 and a demand for short consumption in 2006 could not be raised for the first time a decade afterwards.

A Single Judge, however, said that he could not hear the plea on the ground that when one makes a particular argument at some point and fails in it, nobody else could approach the Court afterwards and make any other argument – by referring to the 2005 instance. Obviously, there is no such rule of law, and the 31 bars have approached the Division Bench in appeal. I represent them this time. The Division Bench has sought the response of the state government.

8. The problem, however, is that the Excise Department has commenced a coercion spree across Karnataka in the wake of last month’s demonetisation by the Central Government. The 31 bars, however, are not being troubled in by the Excise Department. Still, as I pointed out at the very beginning, I write here in public interest.

Bars Being Asked to Cough up Bribes to Cover Note Ban Loss

9. On the pretext that the State Government has run out of cash in its coffers, Excise Officers across Karnataka have been coercing owners of bars to force-feed their customers more liquor to collect more revenue for the State Government; reluctant bars are being pressurised into submission by the Excise Officers.

You may confirm this truth from senior officers in the Excise Department.

Further, the Excise Officers have been openly asking the bars also to cough up more money in bribes so as to pay their political masters who are said to have suffered great losses due to demonetisation by the Central Government on 8 November – through increased selling of liquor upon unwilling customers.

Given the highly regulated nature of the liquor sector in Karnataka, the Excise Officers realised that the only manner of securing more cash in liquor bars is to force more customers to drink more liquor.

Coerced Bars Owners See Results of Forced Inebriation

Coerced bar owners who reluctantly yielded to such pressure and fed more liquor to their unwilling customers are beginning to see the disastrous consequences of their actions – more brawls, more violence, more disorder and repeated cries from distressed and bruised family members.

The Excise Department has been ruining the social health of this state for the past month and should this state of affairs continue, the damage to the public health would be catastrophic.

When the state government and the Excise Department seek cash by force feeding more liquor to the public, it becomes necessary to worry about the depravity in the government itself. A Chief Minister who cares about the well-being of his people should prevent the ruin that is being brought about by the Excise Department in Karnataka.

In his second letter to Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, the author had reinstated his concerns over the unsound decision of forcing bars and restaurants owners to fill a compulsory quota of alcohol consumption to earn revenues. However, neither of those letters were responded to by the government. The incidents of mass molestation of women by inebriated men in Bengaluru on New Year’s Eve has raised security concerns in the city. Will the Karnataka government acknowledge their share of responsibility in the revels of NYE which went horribly wrong?

(KV Dhananjay is a Bangalorean and an advocate in Supreme Court.)

(Views expressed in this article are personal.)