In the afternoon, the Swift Dzire driver (identity is not being revealed to protect him from potential police harassment) wagged his head vehemently, pleading ignorance about where the stuff would be available. By 8 pm, as the car reached Naroda, on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, he was a picture of complete conciliation. He turned his head around gently, smiled sheepishly before asking, “woh chahiyye?”
He piloted the car expertly through the narrow, circuitous streets of Naroda before reaching Sardarnagar. He knew exactly where to go. He finally pulled over by a small eatery, slipped out from behind the steering wheel, and disappeared into a dark alley. He returned as stealthily and said: “Royal Challenge baaraa-so. Election ka time hai, kimat double hai” (Royal Challenge would cost Rs 1,200. Since it is election time, the price is twice the original amount).
It took him no more than five minutes to return with the merchandise, wrapped in his cotton scarf.
Liquor Ban a Sham?
Across the massive urban sprawl that is Ahmedabad, alcohol is available in abundance, in spite of prohibition which has been in force across Gujarat since May 1960. In as much as the law proscribes the manufacture, storage, sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages, the legislation is violated in its letter and spirit.
“Hypocrisy apart, the availability of alcohol not just in Ahmedabad, but throughout the state, in spite of prohibition, bespeaks a degree of organisation among those who are involved in the smuggling in, distribution, storage and dissemination of any brand. You just have to name it and pay an inflated price for what you wish to consume,” says Rahul Sharma, who took voluntary retirement from the Indian Police Service in 2015 before taking to practicing law.
“You will get liquor of any brand, at any place and at any time. All you need is a contact,” Sharma says matter-of-factly.
More recently, Sharma, along with some like-minded friends and well-wishers, floated Smart Party to contest the 2017 assembly elections, with scrapping the “farcical” prohibition legislation as one of its main programmatic objective. But lack of funds forced Sharma and Abhishek Kumar, Smart Party’s co-founder to dissolve the organisation.
“Why can’t people enjoy a drink in the privacy of their homes, and why must the trade remain underground?” Sharma asks before answering his own question: “There is a cut built into the entire system and it is bottom-up.”
Sharma’s activism led him to research the lawful sale and distribution of alcohol across other states. His findings indicated that the Tamil Nadu and Kerala earn excise revenue of about Rs 30,000 crore and Rs 20,000 crore, respectively.
Netas Turning a Blind Eye?
“But in Gujarat, the money generated through the illicit sale of liquor is going to the bootleggers, the police, the bureaucracy and some of the politicians. This has spawned a black money economy,” Sharma says.
In the wake of poor implementation of the law, an amendment to the prohibition legislation in March 2017 encouraged people to rat on those who attempt to purchase or actually buy liquor from bootleggers.
A press release issued by the state government at the time said that citizens may “directly inform” the authorities about “liquor-related illegal activity by dialing a toll-free number (14405) or a mobile number (9978934444). The state government promised that for “effective implementation of the law”, it would use social media to “spread awareness”.
Sharma scoffs at such puerile moves when the illicit trade itself has “spread” far and wide across Gujarat. While there is no reliable data on the volume of alcohol sold illicitly in Gujarat, it is common knowledge that alcohol shipments enter the state from Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Daman and Diu. Besides, there is clandestine manufacture of country liquor.
When it comes to practicing prohibition, the political leadership of the state does not quite lead by example. In May 2017, Deputy Chief Minister Nitin Patel’s 30-something son Jaimin was stopped by officials at the Ahmedabad International Airport from boarding a Qatar Airways flight to Greece when he arrived in a “heavily drunken” state.
A real estate dealer, Jaimin was so sozzled that he could not walk straight, airport officials revealed at that time. At the time, Nitin Patel brushed off the incident by claiming that Jaimin returned home because he was not well.
Liquor Ban: A Curse or a Boon?
Sharma recalls that as Banaskantha superintendent of police in the mid-90s, he would lead raids to stop bootlegging, but more recently, an inspector who served under him, then disclosed to him that almost all the seizures were “fixed” to show that the police were active and strict.
Knowledgeable sources revealed that alcohol distribution takes place at three level. At the top or “plush” end, the world’s most expensive liquor is available, of course for the right price. Shipments from abroad are offloaded at the Mundra port in Kutch, from where small trucks take the well-packed cartons to private warehouses.
One Ahmedabad lady disclosed that her bootlegger has turned so affluent that he possesses 14 cars, including a Mercedes Benz, an Audi and a Range Rover. When she needs supplies, she calls up her bootlegger using code words. So, Laphroaig Single Malt would be referred to as “cigarette” since the whiskey has a smokey flavor. The code for Yamazaki is “Maruti”.
At the next level are bootleggers who cater to young professionals. They often use the services of college-going girls who operate as couriers for earning extra pocket money. Mid-range whiskies are sold for Rs 2,500. At the third level is country liquor or “desi maal”, which is manufactured in some pockets of Gujarat, but the bulk of the supplies come from neighbouring states such as Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.
While Sharma believes that “consuming alcohol is akin to a person’s freedom to be with oneself”, an Ahmedabad-based lady admits that “on the one hand, availability of liquor and its consumption exposes Gujaratis’ hypocrisy”, but “prohibition also has its positives such as little or no rowdiness on our streets, and women feel safe when they are out of their homes because there is some fear of the law”.
(Voices of Gujarat: Tired of listening to netas make promises? As Gujarat goes to polls, The Quint wants to listen to the real voices of Gujarat – the voters. Tell us what issues matter to you this election season. Send in)