The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Hic, hic, Bengal shining
- Revenue from liquor set to touch Rs 1000 crore

Calcutta, April 23: Here’s final proof of India Shining. Champagne corks are popping in Bengal, too. And how!

Excise collections are set to bubble over the Rs 1,000-crore mark for the first time. While Bengal drinks more, finance minister Asim Dasgupta (in picture) is worrying less about having to any day scrape the bottom of the barrel.

Like many other things, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s government could well be left wondering in private — and, dare one say, over a glass of something or the other — why it didn’t recognise the state’s thirst for liquor earlier.

Days were when liquor was a strict “no-no” for Bengal’s communists. After coming to power in 1977, it did not issue a single liquor licence for decades. Just as it pulled English out of primary schools, or believed that courting capital was a worse vice than the “decadent culture” of sipping whisky.

Excise collections, as a result, used to come in a trickle — never more than Rs 250 crore, from only 150 liquor shops and bars throughout the state.

Necessity is the mother of all inventions and the Left Front rediscovered liquor licences when Dasgupta’s cash box began to have a hollow ring about it.

In 2000 — around the time the bring-English-back official movement also gathered steam — the CPM-led government shed its inhibitions about liquor. Licences for off-shops and bars were issued and in four years excise on liquor has become the second highest revenue earner after sales tax in the state.

“Last year, we were able to earn Rs 616 crore from excise duties. This year, we expect collections to be around Rs 900 crore,” said a smiling excise commissioner Satish Tewari. “The amount is likely to cross Rs 1,000 crore if we continue issuing new licences. The process has already begun.’’

Altogether, 375 off-shops, bars and clubs have come up between 2000-03. Over 100 bars opened for business last year alone, and 50 more are expected soon. The floodgates opened with a lottery of 250 off-shop licences in 2000.

“Results of the liberalised policy were noticed when the revenue collection jumped to Rs 567 crore in 2002. Cheered by this rise in revenue, the government relaxed some restrictions for opening bars and started issuing more licences. The revenue increased to Rs 616 crore in 2003,” officials said.

Finding a cash cow — or should it be liquid gold' — the government again relaxed restrictions in a new excise policy in 2003, enabling it to issue 300 more licences for off-shops and an unlimited number of permits for bars.

The new policy allowed anyone to get a licence for a liquor shop or bar after paying a fee and provided there was no hospital, educational institution or place of worship in the vicinity.

At least Rs 200 crore is expected from application fees and excise duties from the new shops.

“Even after crossing the Rs 1,000-crore mark, we will still be far behind Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, where annual collections from excise are over Rs 3,000 crore. We may not be able to match these states, but we will be in a respectable position in a couple of years,” Tewari said.

Shall we raise a toast to liquor'

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