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Excise department’s arm-twisting dulls bar spirits

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What is a watering hole without beer? But this unimaginable scenario is brewing at many food and beverage outlets in Bengaluru. Insufficient beer in their stock, not to mention several other restrictions imposed by authorities, is reducing footfall, restaurant owners grieve.

One pub owner explained the vanishing beer stocks: Apparently, the excise department issues him beer only if he buys a certain quantity of Indian Made Liquor (IML).

“The officials have been blackmailing me since September by forcing a deal where he will issue me five cases of beer only if I buy 10 cases of IML,” he revealed.

Last week, members of the Karnataka Wine Merchants’ Association staged a protest at the Karnataka State Beverages Corporation Limited (KSBCL) depot in Peenya, over what they termed as “misuse of power by the excise department to meet their internal targets.”

Though the state-run KSBCL has no power to dictate the choice of liquor purchase, officials are enforcing it “informally”. This practice, sources said, is due to two reasons. One, the duty on IML is higher than beer. Second, the department has a target to mop up ?19,750 crore of revenue in 2018-19, which is 10% higher than the revenue collected a year ago.

“Revising the target for the excise department is putting F&B establishments under constant pressure. Restaurants and bars in the City are already in a tight spot due to an array of restrictions,” said Manu Chandra, head of National Restaurant Association of India (NRAI), Bengaluru.

G Honnagiri Gowda, president of Karnataka Wine Merchants’ Association said that the government is pressuring the excise department to sell more liquor to facilitate their schemes such as farm-loan waiver.

Excise department officials too admitted that the retailers and bar owners are being made to buy more hard liquor than beer. “This is being enforced in order to meet our target. There is a lot of pressure on us,” one official said, requesting anonymity. He was quick to add that restaurant owners are making a good profit from beer sales as they are not compelled to follow the MRP.

Excise commissioner Yashavantha V, however, maintained that the department is not forcing retailers or pub owners to buy hard liquor. “Our records show that beer consumption has gone up by 10-12% in the past one year. How could this be possible if we were forcing sellers to buy more hard liquor?” he asked. He added that the duty on IML is higher than beer to discourage consumption of hard liquor.

Meanwhile, Manu Chandra urged the government to come up with a win-win solution to ease pressure on both the excise department and F&B establishments. “No fresh liquor licence has been issued since 1995. Bengaluru must have grown three-fold since. Issuing more number of licences will create an effective demand-supply equilibrium.”

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