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Legislators lock horns over liquor
- Ire trained on off-shop spurt after role curb by new licensing policy

Here an off-shop, there an off-shop… Alarmed at the apparent mushrooming of liquor sales outlets in many “densely-populated” parts of Calcutta, some even perilously close to school compounds, the Opposition uncorked a campaign on Monday against the government’s free-flow licence policy.

Raising the issue in the Assembly, Congress and Trinamul Congress MLAs blamed the government’s “unplanned” policy for the spurt in off-shops. “How could our chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, whose commitment to values and culture is famous, take a decision that goes totally against the tradition of our state'” demanded Saugata Roy.

Citing an example, the Trinamul legislator said the residents of Jodhpur Park had petitioned him to shut down a liquor shop located “very close” to a school for girls. “I cannot understand how the government could issue a licence for opening an outlet so close to an educational institution,” said Roy. He and several other members, the likes of Paresh Pal and Asit Mal, voiced their demand that the excise department be stopped from granting any further liquor-shop licences close to schools.

The mission to distance schoolchildren from such off-shops was just part of the protest agenda. High on the demand list was the right — recently robbed — to a role in the process of opening new off-shops. The government’s new user-friendly licensing policy does not allow an MLA or a councillor to have any say in the process. The legislators were vehement in their demand for a change in policy.

“You must ensure that licences for new liquor shops are issued to individuals and organisations in the localities only after consulting the local MLA and councillor,” chorused the legislators.

Sources in the excise department said 2,587 new licences have been issued in Bengal — several in Calcutta — since the liquor sales policy was ‘liberalised’. A total of 84 applicants are awaiting the final clearance for opening off-shops.

The government, in a bid to boost revenue, had decided to grant easy open-up permission for off-shops so that there would be one such outlet available for roughly 18,000 people. “We understand the government is going through a severe financial crisis, but is this the only way it has found to raise funds'” demanded Paresh Pal.

There was trouble brewing outside the Assembly, as well. Members of the state Youth Congress gathered in front of the Assembly’s north gate in the afternoon to protest the government’s propensity to issue licences for off-shops. Police said the protesters were arrested, taken to the central lock-up of Lalbazar and released only after the Assembly session had concluded.

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