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SC liquor ban: Empty tables, skeletal staff at Bengaluru central business district pubs

LiveMint logoLiveMint 03-07-2017 Sharan Poovanna

Bengaluru: The tables were set and the place lit and ready for service but the loud music and attractive offers usually displayed at the entrance of the gastropub were conspicuous by their absence. A few staff members waited eagerly to greet customers— but none came, not even one.

This was Russh on Saturday night, a usually packed watering hole on Church Street in Bengaluru, an upscale location thronged by youngsters and party-goers through the week.

Similar scenes greeted people at many other pubs and restaurants in the city’s central business district that was forced to go dry following a Supreme Court ban on sale of liquor near state and national highways.

Scores of people walked into pubs with two questions: “Are you open?” and “Are you serving alcohol?” They were met with a yes and a no, respectively as they moved from one watering hole to another along the near-one kilometre stretch that is home to dozens of pubs and restaurants, giving a new meaning to the term ‘pub hopping.’

At least 850 watering holes out of more than 3,100 in Bengaluru stopped serving alcohol from Friday night following apex court orders banning sale of alcohol within 500 metres of all highways. The directive applies to MG Road and Brigade Road in Bengaluru, according to official records that classify both busy streets in the heart of the city as highways.

While bars remained closed, pubs and cafes tried to keep the business running with skeletal staff. But the offerings of food, mocktails or even hookahs and sheeshas found few or no takers.

“When will this end, sir? Most of our staff have been asked not to come to work until we can fully open again,” said a waiter at Russh.

That’s a question the state government has not been able to answer as its request to de-notify over 700 kms of national highways and 1,476 kms of state highways passing through towns and cities hasn’t yet received the Centre’s nod.

“There is a denotification proposal and they will take a decision either tomorrow or the day after. So we are waiting for that. The liquor association had also filed an appeal regarding this last May (at a national level) and there is a judgement due on that next week. So that’s another option although we don’t think the judgement will favour us,” Madhukar Shetty, secretary of Karnataka Hotels Association told Mint on Sunday.

If the denotification of roads does not work, there will be no choice but to relocate or lose liquor licenses, Shetty added. For weeks now, liquor establishment owners have thronged the offices of the state excise department, hoping to get some relief.

Karnataka is one of the largest liquor consuming states in the country and the government has been trying to take steps to protect the industry, which earned around Rs16,500 crore last year and provides thousands of jobs.

Despite its significant contribution to the state coffers, liquor is viewed through the social lens in India, which leads to the perception that it is an industry that affects the health of the population and thus makes it difficult for politicians to back.

The excise department, which prides itself on being one of the biggest revenue earners for the state exchequer, has been busy trying to get all liquor establishments to comply with the latest directives. It has also come down heavily on officials and establishments trying to circumvent the orders to keep up weekend revenue targets.

“It takes an inordinate length of time before it starts becoming economically unviable to remain in this kind of a limbo. (If that happens) we will take necessary action to shift to another location which doesn’t get encumbered by this kind of a regulation,” said Collin Timms, owner of Pecos - a pub that has been serving generations of Bengaluru’s beer drinkers since 1989.

Strangely enough, establishments that are not impacted by the court’s order did not get significantly higher footfalls on Saturday night as many regular customers seldom stray to newer pastures for a drink.

“I know the government is taking a lot of steps and making a lot of effort to correct the situation so once this gets corrected then we will be allowed to renew our licenses and start serving beer again but until then we are on a coffee break!” Timms, an old time Bengalurean said.

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