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Bottle-ban breaks for foreigners
- Cradle of swadeshi and prohibition raises a toast to tourism

Ahmedabad, Sept. 22: Gandhi’s Gujarat has taken a tentative official step towards cracking open prohibition, in existence for over 40 years.

Ironically, the relaxation in the land of swadeshi has started with foreigners. Overseas tourists from now on will get permits to stay and drink at the airport itself. And the drinking freedom will come without a price — the permit will be free, not the bottles.

Until now, a foreign tourist had to get a permit from some selected shops to have a drink and pay Rs 400 for it. According to the rules, if at the end of their stay, some liquor was still left, they were to return the bottles to the authorities.

The permit will now come without any strings attached, it seems, under a tourism policy announced today. Hotels and restaurants, listed by the government, will serve foreign tourists liquor as well.

Tourism, minister Anil Patel said, will be the “engine of economic growth”. Although a senior official in his ministry does not believe tourism thrives on liquor, the relaxation itself indicates it does lubricate the engine of growth.

Having suffered the first blow after the earthquake, tourism needs some generous lubrication as the flow of visitors almost dried up last year in the wake of the riots. Business has started picking up this year with hotels now reporting 60 per cent occupancy.

Chief minister Narendra Modi had invited over 300,000 non-resident Gujaratis for the Navratri festival that begins in three days. The invitations were sent through e-mail but only 10,000 have responded and less than 5,000 have confirmed.

Of today’s slackening of rules, the minister said: “(It is) a good beginning and a process of regulated relaxation is on.”

Where this regulated relaxation will lead is not clear yet but — left to himself — Patel, a leading industrialist from Mehsana who calls himself a liberal, would want to bottle prohibition for ever. But it is not left to him to decide.

If the ban is indeed lifted, does the government fear a groundswell of protests' “No,” says Patel. “Nothing will happen.”

Still, he favours caution — a step by step progress without hiccups.

Not that it’s needed: scrapping of prohibition, that is.

Only a sick Gujarati can now drink. A resident of the state can get a permit only on medical grounds.

But just as Gujarat is the only state where prohibition is in force, it’s probably the only state where liquor is delivered at your doorstep in half-an-hour flat — the system works as well as Domino’s Pizza. Pick up the phone and place the order. The numbers are not listed in the yellow pages but the time-tested word-of-mouth system of circulating information is much more efficient.

Gujaratis who are not “sick” might very well resent the end of prohibition because the liquor they buy now is free of taxes.

The well-knit bootlegging industry will want it the least, given its annual estimated revenue of Rs 1,000 crore.

Patel says there is no tearing hurry to completely lift prohibition, but admits that this puritanical law does not fit in with global economic reality, which he does not miss even if his policy is promoting Jurassic era sites in central Gujarat where dinosaur fossils have been found.

It may not match the Vibrant Gujarat — a national seminar to be attended by a thousand delegates from September 28 — of Modi’s vision either.

The intention to execute an image makeover is evident.

According to the policy, one of the three strengths of Gujarat is “absolute peace and social safety and security”.

Will foreigners drink to that'

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