Lift the iron curtain at Delhi’s liquor vends

The window behind the grille at the government liquor shop in Tughlakabad extension is usually open by noon. But it comes to life after sundown.

Large crowds gather outside the shop jostling for space. A few seconds are all that customers get to shout the name of a drink, pay cash, grab the bottle, and push themselves out of the crowd. There is no time to browse, or check if a particular brand is available in the 30 seconds that customers get before they are shoved aside.

“Given the size of the crowd and the madness in the last few hours before the shop closes at 10pm, there is not much room for thinking,” said Shubham Choudhury, a tech executive who lives in Kalkaji.

There are other problems. In these peak hours, it’s difficult to pay with a card as shopkeepers accept nothing but cash. Even in the less-crowded afternoon hours, one can ask about specific brands, but stocks are extremely limited, and imported brands are out of the question.

“Often it even gets difficult to avail decent whiskeys and light beer,” said Choudhury.

The 34-year-old now drives a few kilometres to a prominent private vendor in Greater Kailash – where he gets to choose from a wide range of different varieties of liquor, with salespersons to help with queries. Customers can pick what they want from the shelves, get it billed, and walk out.

“That is the kind of experience liquor shops must offer across the city,” he said. The problem is that such shops are few, and only in a few select neighbourhoods.

Also Read | Delhi: It’s time for liquor policy to come of age

Choudhury isn’t the only one complaining. Across Delhi, customers say buying liquor in the city is both cumbersome and painstaking — comparing poorly to the experience in other metro cities that boast of stores where people can choose brands at leisure.

In contrast, city residents say that the jostling in front of grilled shops, often with louts and drunks, increases the taboo around drinking, and makes buying of alcohol seem unsafe and feel unpleasant. Little wonder then that some people say they drive to Gurugram and Noida for a better retail experience.

“For women, particularly, most government shops are no-go zones. They are very crowded and women do not feel safe,” said Akanksha Nagpal, manager at an audit firm based in Delhi.

Arijit Sen, who works with a legal consultancy company, said the biggest concern is the lack of room to explore brands. “In the peak hours, one has to have a certain brand in mind. Then the shop owners often say no, and push another brand as an alternative. One has to quickly decide. Even if one goes in the lean hours, range of stock is a major issue,” he said.

Delhi has roughly 720 liquor shops, of which 460 are government shops and 260 are private. Of the 260, around 160 are located inside shopping malls, government records said. All shops have to renew their licenses annually. In addition, roughly 1,043 restaurants, hotels and pubs serve liquor on their premises.

Mumbai has 1,190 liquor shops and Bangalore has 1,794, said a Delhi government report prepared in January.

But people with knowledge of developments say the lack of choice at liquor stores is more systemic, and involves the sale of unregistered brands – from which the government generates no revenue by way of excise or sales tax. In the Capital, for example, there are at least 30 brands of whisky and other hard liquor that are not sold anywhere outside the city.

Moreover, neighbouring states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab have higher density of liquor shops per population, ensuring ease of access and less crowding. The distribution of the shops is not even, creating demand-and-supply gaps that encourages illicit liquor, sale of non-registered brands and bootlegging.

“Around 70 municipal wards in Delhi (out of 272), especially in the northwest peripheries and the rural belt in south, do not have liquor shops. They also lead to excessive crowds at liquor stores in other areas which definitely affect the customers’ buying experience,” said a senior official in the excise department who did not wish to be identified.

Another pain point is the scarce availability of imported liquor. Imported liquor and a wide range of Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) can be found mostly in malls and some prominent private stores, but only a handful of government shops – for instance, those located in Connaught Place and Khan Market. “The range of stock for any shop – government or private – depends on the nature and scale of demand it witnesses. So, that is something more market-driven,” said the excise department official.

To be sure, the city has taken major strides in modernising the liquor business in the past two decades.

In 2003, a policy facilitated the entry of private enterprises. It forced the government into improving the quality of service in neighbourhood shops. In 2010, a new policy drafted for malls allowed liquor stores and departmental stores to have liquor sections – through licenses under L-10 and L-12 categories.

“These are the kind of shops preferred by women, consumers of imported liquor, and people who like more choices… there have been some major game changers in the front of improving the liquor buying experience for people in the city,” said Bhub Singh, a member of the Delhi Alcobev Retailers Association, a group of 107 prominent retailers based in the city.

In 2010, the government allowed department stores and large chain stores to stock beer, wine and light alcoholic drinks. By 2019, there were at least 125 such stores across the city stocking alcoholic beverages. “It was of immense help. People who look out for beer and wine could pick up liquor while doing their groceries or running errands,” said Ankita Singh, who works with an advertisement company.

But two years ago, the government ordered the liquor counters shut, citing violation of license norms concerning maximum cap on carpet area. Officials said people had opened stores overnight to just sell liquor and applied for licences under the L-12 and L-12/F categories –which concerns departmental stores.

The matter went to the Delhi high court which issued a stay order on December 24, 2019. In March 2020, the government did not invite applications for L-12 and L-12/F licences for 2020-21. This too went to the Delhi High court, where the government said that a new policy would be drafted to plug loopholes in the system. This time, the court dismissed the plea filed by a collective of departmental stores who could not renew their licenses.

Pankaj Singh, a departmental store owner in east Delhi’s Patparganj, who used to have an L-12 license, said, “It would be great if the government opens liquor license applications again for departmental stores. However, the government should reconsider the condition regarding 2,000 square feet carpet area. It will end up making the policy favourable for only big players.”

There are other problems too: a four-tier licence system for liquor stores, a complex maze of excise duty slabs that clubs roughly 80% of the IMFL in a single category, and a need for rationalisation of the registration process for foreign brands.

The government says it is working on a solution. In September 2020, deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia set up a three-member expert committee to draft a new excise policy. In January, recommendations were shared publicly and since received 14,000 responses from industry stakeholders and the general public which are currently being reviewed by a group of ministers, said the excise official quoted above.

A Delhi government official said the city government intends to bring back liquor counters in departmental stores and reduce crowds with an equitable distribution of outlets.

Under the proposed policy, departmental stores in the city that have a carpet area of more than 2,000 square feet will be able to apply for licenses to sell wine and beer. The proposed policy also says the shop should be functional for at least two years or be part of a chain that has existed for more than two years with an annual turnover of at least 1 crore for non-liquor items.

“New licenses will be issued in a fashion that ensures more equitable distribution of shops across the city,” said the official.

Until then, most consumers have to contend with that dreaded window grille.

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