Kolkata: After more than 30 people across West Bengal died from drinking hooch, or spurious liquor, in less than a month, the state government is considering cutting taxes on country spirits to make them more affordable. Hooch costs about a third of country spirits.
The Bureau of Applied Economics and Statistics, or BAES—an arm of the West Bengal government—has estimated after a recent survey of 10,000 people that consumption of hooch in the state is at least one-and-half times that of country spirit. And it’s taking a heavy toll.
On Tuesday, four more people in the state died after drinking spurious liquor, after which a mob joined forces with the police to demolish hooch dens in the area.
In Kolkata, a 600ml bottle of hooch costs Rs15, whereas country spirits cost Rs43 a bottle. Of this, Rs18.43 goes towards excise duty and Rs5.97 for sales tax. Combined taxes are slightly lower in the districts, at about Rs20 for a 600ml bottle of country liquor, and significantly lower in the hills at Rs9.17 per litre.
The state government has been raising taxes on spirits to discourage consumption, but that has led to many people switching to the cheaper, illegally distilled spirits. Proposals aimed at reducing consumption of hooch were presented to a panel of legislators, called the Assembly Subject Committee, on Tuesday, according to the state’s finance minister Asim Dasgupta.
“We are concerned… we are considering everything—the huge difference in prices (between country spirits and hooch), wide availability of hooch and so on. We have prepared a report, which will address all these issues,” Dasgupta told Mint.
The state’s finance department is also considering relaxing the restrictions on retailing country spirits and offering alternative livelihood to those who produce and sell hooch. “The plan is to create self-help groups through which they could run some legitimate business,” said the BAES official.
An excise department official, also on condition of anonymity, said the number of registered retailers of country spirits in West Bengal is 40% lower than in Tamil Nadu. The state government collects around Rs900 crore a year in taxes from country spirits, sales of which are estimated to be around 7.3 million cases a month on an average.