Darjeeling, Nov. 6: The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha deciding to close down all licensed liquor shops from tomorrow, many restaurants and hotels are planning to fall back on traditional tipple to cater for the needs of tourists.
The Morcha move is supposed to “pressure the state exchequer” by stopping the flow of revenue that the party claims is being generated through the sale of liquor in the hills.
Morcha president Bimal Gurung had earlier said the state government had collected excise duty of around Rs 50 crore from the sale of liquor in the hills during the just-ended month long festival period.
Sources in the liquor business, however, said all taxes were directly collected at the source (manufacturing unit) and liquor shops do not have to shell out a single rupee to the government at the time of sale of any bottle.
“Only for the renewal of bar licences, they have to pay around Rs 20,000 to Rs 25,000 per month. The rest of the tax is paid by the manufacturers before the liquor leaves the factories,” said a source. The source also said if all “off” shops in the three hill sub-divisions stopped selling liquor and the manufacturers scaled down the production proportionately and distributors brought in less quantity, then the loss to the state exchequer would be around Rs 3 crore per month.
Most bars have already worked out a plan to counter the ban. “We have started ordering local liquor made from rhododendrons, oranges, ginger and chingping, a type of seed. A bottle (750ml) of local liquor costs us around Rs 80 but they are also available at Rs 20 depending on the quality,” said the owner of a leading restaurant.
Locally brewed liquor does not fall in the Morcha ban ambit, as no excise duty has to be paid to the state government. But it is illegal to serve them in restaurants. In the hills, where there hardly appears to be any writ of law — no electricity bills and taxes have been paid for a year and at one point the Morcha forced vehicles to use “GL” numberplates — many believe that they can sell locally brewed liquor without any administrative hassles.
Thongba, a locally brewed liquor, is served in wooden kegs. Picture by Suman Tamang
In that case, tourists have no option, but to drink rakshi, made from chingping and rhododendron — the brew is a hit among trekkers in the Sandakphu-Phalut region — or thongba. The thongba is made from wet millet seeds put into a foot-tall wooden keg, which has a six-inch diameter. Hot water is poured into the millet and it starts fermenting instantly. The liquor is sipped through bamboo straw dipped into the keg. That is as far as the exotic nature of the liquor goes.
“But the worry is that with the demand, the prices might go up and we may not get the required stock of good quality,” said the restaurant owner.
With IMFL liquor off the menu, many hotel owners believe that their sales will take a major dip. “We have realised that when we have local or foreigners as clients, liquor makes up almost 50 per cent of the food bill. If there are middle-class tourists, the liquor makes 15 per cent of the food bill,” said a hotel owner. Sources in the excise department said there were 24 outlets selling country liquor across the hills and the number of “off” IMFL shops stood at 19. The number of licensed bars is 19 too.
Since early morning, many of the “off” shops had a steady flow of customers many of whom were trying to stock up. “At times people need liquor to organise successful parties in the hills,” quipped a buyer.
Dharmendra Poddar, acting secretary, Darjeeling Bar and Offshoot Owner’s Association, said: “Since there is a call to close down the shops we will do it from tomorrow. The issue of Gorkhaland after all is a very sentimental one.”
Poddar admitted that association members had tried to contact Gurung. “We could not meet him after which we decided to close the shops. Till now, we have not thought of any alternative business to sustain ourselves,” he added.