Is it more political than corruption-centric?

By Mohd Naushad Khan

Excise policy of the Delhi government led by APP has become a bone of contention between BJP and the government of Delhi. So far it has resulted in major political slugfest ahead of assembly elections in Gujarat. Both parties are trying to score political points, keeping in mind to impact the outcome of assembly elections.

BJP is targeting Delhi government on corruption charges to tarnish the clean image and corruption-free governance model narrative built by the APP since its formation. APP has been able to sell its Delhi governance model to the people of Punjab and will try to do so in other states like Himachal Pradesh. Many experts believe the tug of war between APP and the BJP is more political than corruption. Some even argue that if APP claims its corruption-free policy then why it does not think of liquor-free State.

On the one hand when BJP is trying to corner APP-led Delhi government on corruption, APP leaders are trying everything in their kitty to make a political pitch of its governance model through repeatedly talking about the publication of educational model of Delhi government on the front page of The New York Times.

On July 8, 2022, Manish Sisodia was accused of giving unauthorised privileges to people who held liquor licences in a report delivered to Lt. Governor VK Saxena by Delhi Chief Secretary Naresh Kumar, who had discovered anomalies and procedural errors in the new liquor policy. He said the benefits were increased in exchange for the funding the AAP utilised to influence the Punjab Assembly elections.

The report claimed violations of the Delhi Excise Act of 2009, the Delhi Excise Rules of 2010, the Transaction of Business Rules (ToBR) of 1993, and the Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi (GNCTD) Act of 1991. It stated that a bonus of ₹144 crores was also given to the liquor mafia.

“Indicates substantively of financial quid pro quo at the top political level, wherein the Minister In-charge of the Excise Department, Manish Sisodia, took and got executed, major decisions/actions in violation of the statutory provisions and the notified Excise Policy that had huge financial implications,” stated the report.

The report claimed that Manish Sisodia reportedly waived off ₹144.36 crores on the licence fee, to be paid by the private liquor vendors, under the pretext of the pandemic. He also caused loss to the Excise Department and provided benefits to liquor licensees by waiving the import pass fee of ₹50 per beer case, the report claimed.

On the excise policy and the political tussle going on, Ranjit Singh Ghuman, an economist and political commentator, said, “The Constitution of India gives an exclusive right to the states to formulate their excise policies but one wonders why the Delhi-Excise Policy 2021-22 did not go well with the BJP-led Central government? The matter did not remain confined to halting the implementation of the policy but led to an institution of CBI inquiry against the Delhi Deputy Chief Minister and Excise Minister, Manish Sisodia. Again, it is difficult to say whether Sisodia and AAP are above the board or not; it will be known only from the findings of the inquiry. But going by the thumb rule, expecting absolute honesty from the politicians and bureaucrats is akin to asking for the moon.”

He added, “Nonetheless, this has heightened the war of words between BJP and AAP. Without going into the merits and demerits of the policy and that of Sisodia’s role, prima-facie, it seems an encroachment on the Constitutional rights of the Delhi government besides settling score with the AAP by the BJP. Perhaps, AAP’s splendid victory in Punjab and its rising aspirations in the ensuing Assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat is the reason behind all this. The central government’s tendency towards centralisation of all powers and usurping the Constitutional rights of states (enactment of three agri-laws is a stark example) also seems to be behind it.” 

“It, however, does not mean that there are no loopholes in the policy. One wonders how can the Expert Committee for reviewing the old excise policy and recommending the new one headed by the Excise Commissioner of Delhi (with Deputy Commissioner (Excise) and Additional Commissioner (Trade & Taxes) as its members) can do justice to formulate a new policy. The vested political and bureaucratic interest can also not be ruled out,” Professor Ghuman said.

“Though on the face of it, the policy seems to be quite good as it aims at curbing the monopolistic practices of the old policy and promote competition to benefit the consumers, enhancing consumers’ access and raising the consumption of liquor and thereby increasing state’s revenue. However, the conditionality and eligibilities clauses of the policies do not go well with this stated aim as it would ban the entry of small players,” he said.

“In the name of competition, it may promote oligopoly and cartelisation among the L-1 holders who eventually may charge the monopoly or syndicate prices. Further, its merits and demerits shall be known only after its outcome. Significantly, AAP government in Punjab has also formed its Excise Policy on Delhi pattern but has been challenged in Punjab and Haryana High Court,” Professor Ghuman opined.

Dr Prem Chand, Sr. Assistance Professor, Department of Political Science, Atma Ram Sanatan Dharma College, University of Delhi, said, “Delhi Government excise policy meant the exit of Delhi government from retail liquor business in the national capital. Under the new policy, 849 liquor stores were to open in Delhi across 32 zones. Each zone was divided into 8-10 wards which would have 27 liquor outlets. The Delhi excise policy allowed liquor stores to be opened in malls, commercial areas, local shopping complexes etc subject to rules and regulations.” 

“This excise policy was implemented on November 17, 2021 when Anil Baijal was the Delhi Lieutenant Governor. In my view, elected Governments have rights to raise Government revenue and exchequer. It is best policy decision by Delhi Government especially when we see the states like Bihar and Gujarat where liquor is banned but these states are facing illegal liquor business and death due to hooch tragedy by consuming spurious liquor. On the one hand, we are losing precious life, and on the other hand state losing revenue,” he argued.

However, according to World Health Organisation, “Alcohol consumption contributes to 3 million deaths each year globally as well as to the disabilities and poor health of millions of people. Overall, harmful use of alcohol is responsible for 5.1 per cent of the global burden of disease. Harmful use of alcohol is accountable for 7.1% and 2.2% of the global burden of disease for males and females respectively. Alcohol is the leading risk factor for premature mortality and disability among those aged 15 to 49 years, accounting for 10 per cent of all deaths in this age group. Disadvantaged and especially vulnerable populations have higher rates of alcohol-related death and hospitalisation.”

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