Archaic law threatens to dampen Mumbai's spirits

NEW DELHI Tue Jun 5, 2012 1:01pm IST

1 of 3. A waiter pours a mug of beer at a pub in Mumbai June 3, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Vivek Prakash

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NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Want to drink in Mumbai? Do it at your own risk. Revellers in India's financial hub caught drinking alcohol without a licence face stiff fines and a stint in prison.

City authorities are cracking down on illegal drinking after busting a rave party in one of Mumbai's posh neighbourhoods last month.

A 63-year-old prohibition law requiring every adult above the age of 25 to get a drinking permit exists in Maharashtra but it's never been taken seriously -- until the rave party hogged media headlines.

"(This) will cause trouble to a lot of people, to common citizens," said a senior excise department official in Maharashtra on condition of anonymity.

"We have been sending proposals to the government to scrap this law because there is no meaning in having this law."

Government permits are needed to consume, possess or transport alcohol -- 5 rupees for a daily licence, 100 rupees for a year and 1,000 rupees for a lifetime permit.

While daily permits can be acquired from liquor vendors, those seeking a lifetime permit can get it from the excise department.

Individuals caught drinking without a permit could be fined 50,000 rupees or jailed for five years.

City police say they have little say in the matter.

"Once the law is there, we need to enforce it. So if it is not enforced, then it is the fault of the police," said Rajnish Seth, one of the Mumbai's top police officials. "We have no option."

Ashok Patel, an anti-corruption activist and the president of a merchant welfare association, says the permits allow the police to harass tipplers for bribes and encourages corruption.

"Many people have permits but they don't necessarily carry them around," says Patel. "No one ever checked earlier either."

FAMOUS FOR NIGHTLIFE

Mumbai, the most populated city in India, is also home to Bollywood, the world's largest film industry.

Fondly referred to as "Aamchi Mumbai", which means "Our Mumbai" in Marathi, the local language, the megalopolis is famous for its nightlife.

Kaushal Upreti, an entertainment and media professional, says authorities can use the 1949 law to harass people just because they want to party, especially on days like New Year's Eve.

"It has been a common practice by pubs, restaurants and bars to issue temporary permits for their customers on such days to avoid running into trouble with the police," he said.

Upreti, a resident of Mumbai, doesn't mind getting a permit for himself but is not sure how the licence will work in practice.

"Just so that I can buy a few bottles and I can drink," he says. "It does not make sense."

(Reporting by Anuja Jaiman, Editing by Tony Tharakan and Elaine Lies)

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