In the summer of 2012, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), in a stand-alone report on the State Excise Department, described how the ‘distance rule’ was being twisted and bar hotels allowed to operate near educational and religious institutions in the capital city. The CAG report, remarkably, even had photographs showing bar hotels rubbing shoulders with colleges, schools and churches on MG Road and at Pattom. Two of the best-known schools in the city, for instance, had bars right across the road!
Two years after the CAG report was published, the situation hasn’t changed any. The government has paid little heed to the CAG recommendation that rules should be amended to apply the distance restriction in actual practice. Bars continue to flourish near educational and religious institutions despite the CAG suggesting that even ‘aerial distance’ may be prescribed to bring clarity to the issue.
The Abkari Policy requires bar hotels to be situated at least 200 metres away from schools, colleges, religious institutions, SC/ST colonies and burial grounds. For toddy shops, the distance is 400 metres. But loopholes exist, and little is being done to plug them.
‘’For us, the distance restrictions are sacrosanct. No Excise official will wilfully violate them,’’ said Excise Commissioner Anil X. ‘’But there are also clear court orders on this issue. For instance, there is a court verdict which says that the distance should be measured the way a law-abiding citizen would cross a road using the zebra line,’’ he said. In effect, you can have a bar right across the road, since the distance has to be measured via the zebra crossing, which could be far away.
Then there is the question of which came first. If the bar was already there, then the rules don’t apply. But no new bar can come up beside any of the institutions prescribed in the law.
‘’There are umpteen court orders regarding the distance issue. We have to go by what the rules say. We had submitted our explanation to the CAG after the report came out,’’ said Anil.
The CAG report had been particularly scathing in its criticism that the government had done little to keep the student community away from bar hotels: ‘’Our test check of records has shown that even in the capital city, along the road where the Government Secretariat is situated, licences were granted to bar hotels located opposite reputed educational institutions. Bar licence to a four-star hotel sharing the compound walls of a government college and a church was granted when distance restriction for private four-star hotels was withdrawn during 1994-96. All these licences were being renewed every year,’’ the report said.
Not surprisingly, the anti-liquor lobby isn’t happy with the situation. ‘’We have drawn the government’s attention to this matter on countless occasions. But nothing was done. In some cases, it was even said that since the bar was on the top floor of a building near some school, the distance all the way up too had to be measured,’’ said F M Lazar, vice-president, KCBC Madhya Nirodhana Samithi.