Got Permit to Drink in Guj? They’re Trying to Make You Go to Rehab
 The Gujarat government clamps down on health permit holders by suspending the issuing and renewal of health permits to legally buy alcohol in state. 
The Gujarat government clamps down on health permit holders by suspending the issuing and renewal of health permits to legally buy alcohol in state. (Photo: Liju Joseph/The Quint)

Got Permit to Drink in Guj? They’re Trying to Make You Go to Rehab

“Mahatma Gandhi once said, if he had the same unequivocal dictatorial powers as Hitler did, he would get rid of alcohol from India,” said the director of Prohibition and Excise of Gujarat, Sunil Kumar Dholi, grinning from ear to ear.

On 20 March this year, Dholi’s office gave sweeping orders suspending the issuing and renewal of health permits across Gujarat. These permits are issued to individuals over the age of 40 to procure alcohol legally across 58 permit shops (wine shops) in the state, for health reasons.

Over 70,000 permit-holders and wine shop owners in the state are seething – the drinks can no longer buy the already expensive alcohol, and the owners claim business is down by 40%.

Alcoholics Can’t Catch a Break

The health permits are issued to persons over the age of 40, who cite health issues such as insomnia, bronchitis, asthma, anxiety neurosis, loss of appetite, high and low blood pressure, among other health problems. Earlier, applicants were vetted by the chief surgeon at the district civil hospital. The chief surgeon would issue a medical certificate which allowed them to legally buy alcohol in a dry state.

Apart from this, temporary permits are also issued to tourists and foreigners who are in the state for a short visit, after they provide details of their stay and accommodation.

But now, the government says that it will no longer issue or renew health permits in an attempt to crack down on those faking health problems just to get a drink.

‘Go to Rehab Instead of the Wine Shop’

According to a new diktat issued in June, those renewing their permits for the third time must spend 15 days in a de-addiction centre to recover from alcoholism. There, a panel of doctors will assess whether the individual is truly in dire straits without access to alcohol.

So far, no one has stepped into a de-addiction centre to prove their desperation for booze, according to a permit agent who spoke to The Quint on condition of anonymity.

Not a single permit has been issued or renewed in the last 5 months. They even went after ex-army men’s permits, but the army men protested outside the prohibition office and their permits were renewed; although new permits have not been issued to them. No one has ever gone into a rehabilitation centre either, no one wants the stigma attached to it.
Permit Agent

When The Quint enquired about the renewal of permits, a senior officer at the Prohibition Department who wished to remain anonymous said, “The CMO will soon take a decision on the matter in favour of permit-holders, but we don’t know by when.”

Permit-Holders Dodge Prohibition

A few permit-holders spoke to The Quint and said that they buy alcohol outside Gujarat every time they go on a business or personal visit. According to some, it is much cheaper than buying alcohol in Gujarat, as long as one doesn’t add the cost of hotels and travel.

I got tickets to watch Portugal play league matches in the world cup and picked up a couple of bottles from the duty-free shop. My permit has not been renewed and there is no way in hell I will spend two weeks in rehabilitation. I will pick up more on my next business trip.
Wholesale Electronics Trader and Permit Holder

What About Legal Recourse?

However, there are others who are willing to fight it in the court of law but are not able to find any support among habitual drinkers. A Gujarat High Court lawyer told The Quint under condition of anonymity:

I need at-least five permit holders over the age of 60 whose permits have expired. Only then can I file a writ-petition. There is no way one can file a Public Interest Litigation in this matter, as it doesn’t concern the public at large, especially in a dry state. Eventually people will turn to the black market and buy spurious alcohol to meet their requirements.
Gujarat High Court Lawyer

Meanwhile, wine shop owners are stuck between the devil and the deep sea as they feel they cannot raise their voices against the government’s policies. A member of the Gujarat Federation of Hotels and Restaurants said:

We cannot approach the government to overturn their decision. Eventually the buyer must approach the government or court. Unless they take a stand, we will continue to make losses. As health permits continue to expire each month, we are dependent on foreign tourists and visitors to Gujarat.
Member of the Gujarat Federation of Hotels and Restaurants

Booze Brazenly Taxed?

Sunil Kumar Dholi claims that the hike in excise should not affect the permit shop owners, as the burden falls on the buyer, not on them. He said, “The excise duty hike is on proof per litre, not the sale price, which is quite minuscule and won’t pinch the buyer.”

Hypothetically speaking, if a visitor from Bangalore come to Ahmedabad and buys a bottle of Kingfisher Strong beer, he pays Rs 240 for a 650 ML bottle against Rs 130 back in his hometown. Similarly, he will pay around Rs 1,740 for a 750 ML bottle of Smirnoff Triple Distilled Vodka in Ahmedabad against Rs 1,420 in Bangalore.

The Gujarat Federation of Hotels and Restaurants member clarified:

The excise duty on spirit and wine was raised from Rs 100 per proof litre to Rs 300 per proof litre. For beer, it was raised from Rs 25 per proof litre to Rs 60 per bulk litre on strong beer and Rs 33 per bulk litre on mild beer. Earlier on a beer we paid duty of Rs 2-3 and now we pay around Rs 36. To make matters worse, we also pay 65% VAT on all sales. I have had buyers telling me that they can pick more alcohol from the grey and black markets, my business is down by 40%.
Member of the Gujarat Federation of Hotels and Restaurants

‘Proof per litre’ or ‘proof litre’ is the alcohol content in a one litre bottle, whereas 'bulk litre’ refers to the whole one-litre bottle.

No Alcohol = Poor Revenue

The state government on 23 July this year submitted a memorandum to the 15th Finance Commission asking for compensation for the revenue loss of Rs 9,864 crore annually due to prohibition in the state.

There has been a significant dip in the amount of alcohol imported into the state in 2018 especially in the months of April and May. In April 2017 around 7,67,642 bulk litres were imported into the state, which sharply fell to around 34,345 bulk litres. A similar trend was observed in May. The prohibition department claims that permit shops didn’t import alcohol due to the suspension of health permits.

In terms of sales, foreigners and non-Gujarati tourists have kept the figures high, though not as high as 2017. For example, in May 2017 around 6,07,669 litres were sold compared to around 4,85,357 litres in May 2018.

The state government could use its anti-alcohol drive as a tool to garner more votes in the 2019 polls as the number of permit holders across the state is less than one lakh.

However, there is no guarantee that the move will work in the party’s favour, as most of the permit-holders are from the upper-middle class in urban centres.

(Participate in the second edition of The Quint's My Report Debate and win Rs 10,000. Write an essay on how to fix India and Pakistan's relationship. Submit now)

Follow our Politics section for more stories.

    Also Watch