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Bars can sell bottles as govt sips booze bucks

Calcutta, Dec. 19: The Bengal government has allowed bars to double as off-shops. It has also given bars more time to serve the last drink till January 15, ordering afresh a revenue-generating cocktail whose potency is directly linked to the amount of alcohol consumed.

Bars can serve liquor for an hour more till 2am after paying Rs 10,000 for each additional hour after midnight. Hotels rated three-star and above as well as clubs can do so till 4am between December 15 and January 15, 2013 — an annual window considered the busiest for the liquor trade.

The extension of the closing time is in line with a revenue model the cash-strapped and hike-allergic government had uncorked before the Pujas. But the vending policy shift suggests the government is dipping its feet deeper into the alcohol pond.

The decision to allow on-shops (which serve liquor for consumption on the premises) to operate as off-shops (which can sell bottles over the counter at retail rates) will mean that the number of retail outlets can multiply without issuing fresh licences.

But certain conditions — such as six continuous months of operation and separate storage facility as well as a counter to sell bottles —have to be fulfilled and official clearance obtained for the dual role of bars.

Official data suggest the state has 1,700 on-shops and 1,800 off-shops.

“At least 1,000 on-shops will immediately start operating as off-shops as well. That will push up sales and also excise collections for the state,” said an excise department official.

The separate orders, issued over the past week, illustrate the desperation of the government to raise revenue and its amnesia in power.

Attempts by the erstwhile Left Front government to jack up its revenue collection by liberally distributing liquor licences had hit Trinamul opposition several times. Former finance minister Asim Dasgupta’s efforts to arrive at an all-party consensus in 2010 was aborted following stiff resistance from Trinamul leaders who had contended that the government should not aim at increasing revenues by allowing liquor shops to mushroom across the state.

“The need to raise revenue collection seems to be more pressing than sticking to the earlier stand… the excise route is the easiest way to generate higher revenues,” said an official.

Out of Rs 2,786.47-crore excise mop-up target that finance minister Amit Mitra had set for 2012-13, Rs 1,246 crore was generated till September 30.

Since then, the government started relaxing the closing time of bars in phases, first by an hour and then by two hours.

“In the past two months, the department has earned Rs 468 crore, around Rs 100 crore more than the projection. Now we are confident of surpassing the target by 11 to 13 per cent and earning at least Rs 320 crore extra,” said an official.

“Excise commissioner Deb Kumar Chakrabarti will decide if the extension for serving liquor can continue beyond January 15 and if it does, for how long,” an official said.

Standalone bars and star hotels are queuing up at Lalbazar to seek police clearances to extend closing time. “It is very good for our international guests,” said George Kuruvilla, general manager, The Oberoi Grand.

However, a sore point for several bars is that the police have refused to extend the time for live performance beyond midnight. “There is no relaxation on the existing rule on live performance. The bar may be left open but there can be no crooning or any other form of performance,” a senior official said.


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