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Home >Opinion >Views >Delhi’s liquor retailing reforms merit scrutiny

Delhi’s status as a ‘state’ has never been clearly defined, but it took a blow this week when the Lok Sabha passed a bill that would require its elected government to seek the opinion of its lieutenant governor, an appointee of the Centre, before it takes any executive action. If cleared by the Rajya Sabha, this piece of legislation would significantly deprive Delhi’s assembly of authority and its administration of autonomy, thus flouting the spirit of federalism, even if our capital remains a Union territory for most weighty purposes. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government of Delhi protested this move of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as expected, but also doubled down on a part of its agenda that had got scuttled soon after it first achieved power more than half a decade ago: local liquor market reforms. In a revamp of its excise policy, Delhi sought not just to liberalize the capital’s retail scenario by turning state-run booze outlets over to private players (via auctions), it also proposed dropping the legal age for alcohol consumption from 25 years to 21. Deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia, who holds the portfolio of finance, said the revised policy envisages an age-gating system that would bar under-21s from establishments that serve alcohol, unless they are “supervised". According to AAP, this decision was taken through a process of public consultation that took into account 14,000 comments or so. Yet, for all its claims of moving the needle on progress backed by popular will, its latest revisions do little to set its style of governance apart from that of the BJP.

To the extent that Delhi’s measures can resolve the ailments of its liquor market, they could qualify as reformist. The policy aims to boost state revenues, end an illegal trade in alcoholic drinks, curb corruption and ensure quality. Currently, about 850 liquor vends operate in the city, of which three-fifths are run by the state. These operate in a seller’s market and push brands in lieu of hefty commissions, cheating both customers and the government. Booze shops are also unevenly distributed across the capital, which makes space for a local mafia to supply underserved areas. Delhi’s plan, though, is not to allow more outlets, but to let existing ones be upgraded by licence winners. This could well enhance offtake and undo shady pacts that restrict our choice and enrich middlemen. Whether wheeler-dealers sneak back into the loop, however, would depend on the actual degree of competition that prevails, which, in turn, will hinge on the outcome of auctions.

While the shift is based on suggestions that were made by a group of ministers and then approved by Delhi’s cabinet, we are yet to see a robust debate over it in its assembly, as would befit policy formulation in a democracy. Take the age bar for alcohol. It has long been arbitrarily set, like other such limits, but this one deserves scrutiny in the light of recent studies that show post-adolescent brains take until their mid-20s to attain cognitive maturity. This is especially so of risk assessment, which explains why an overwhelming number of lethal road crashes globally have under-25s at the wheel. The use of anything addictive that can impair our faculties calls for mature judgement. This fact should have sufficed to merit a wide discussion. It’s odd for a government that lays heavy emphasis on health and education not to explain its stance on the appropriate age bar. Yes, we need federalism, no doubt, but we also need lively state-level debates.

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