Covid-19 impact: Liquor firms fear return of restrictions amid chaos at outlets

BENGALURU: Alcohol firms such as Allied Blenders & Distillers, Amrut Distilleries, John Distilleries and brewers including Bira 91 fear the government could impose restrictions again on liquor retailing in the wake of overcrowding and flouting of social distancing norms on the first day of reopening of sale.

Stores selling alcoholic spirits across green, orange and non-containment zones opened Monday after 40 days of lockdown.

“Shoppers are creating serious social crowding issues and if it happens again the government may stop the sale of liquor completely,” said Deepak Roy, the executive vice chairman of Allied Blenders & Distillers that maker of Officers Choice whisky. He is also the chairman of the Confederation of Indian Alcoholic Beverage Companies.

The Ministry of Home Affairs permitted sale of liquor in the third phase of Covid-19 lockdown starting Monday, with a caveat of ensuring a minimum six-feet of physical distancing at stores.

Retailers that opened doors in Karnataka, Maharashtra, Delhi, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh noted serpentine queues as tipplers planned stock piling after the long period of prohibition. Several stores across the country ran out of stock by 11 am, executives said. Separate queues were maintained for men and women at a few locations, apart from capping the limit of purchase for a consumer.

However, such measures did not help in containing panic buying, queuing and social distancing in many places.

“While the government may not freeze liquor sale, we fear they may impose restrictions on the timings going forward,” Amrut Distilleries managing director Rakshit Jagdale said.

Alcobev firms such as John Distilleries and Bira 91 hope crowding would ease in the days ahead, but said curtailing liquor sale was not the solution.

“There is a definite risk of the government withdrawing its decision, but in our view, that would not be prudent. More disruptions would simply mean that whenever we decide to open, a similar or even worse rush would be there at shops,” Bira 91 founder Ankur Jain said.

Extending operating hours temporarily and implementing an odd-even mechanism on the basis of Aadhar cards to reduce the number of shoppers on a given day were better options, Jain noted.

There are about 70,000 liquor outlets in the country. The government has said 319 districts are in the green zone, 284 in the orange zone and 130 in red. Interestingly, Kerala, which was rooting for liquor retail to reopen, opted to stay closed on the first day despite approval from the central home ministry.

John Distilleries chairman Paul John said: “Restriction will in turn enhance overcrowding at stores and lead to bootlegging and sale of spurious liquor which is far worse. States need revenue more than ever before.”

Alcohol firms are pushing the need for app-based home delivery with government intervention and checks in place, to avoid a repeat of the scenario in future.

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