With the entire nation in the grip of pandemic COVID 19, the Punjab state witnessed the sale of liquor as if there was flood in the river…during the severe period of lockdown in Punjab and elsewhere in the country.
Punjab has the highest consumption of liquor in the country and as the lockdown was relaxed in the country and the liquor vends were allowed to open, there were long queues from 1km to 3 km in front of the liquor vends and there were scuffles among the buyers of liquor in the states.
Shockingly in Punjab when the liquor vends were opened, there were not many buyers, nor long queues and the ‘karindas’ of the vends were sitting idle. There was no commotion at any liquor vend in the urban towns or in the rural areas. It has now been learnt that liquor of all types was available in abundance and the liquor mafia has made huge capital.
The home delivery of liquor was made during the lockdown period and this system is still continuing. The agents of the liquor mafias would book the order of liquor from the consumers and the delivery of the same was made in the evening at homes.
The Punjab police has busted at least four factories of illicit liquor. The distilleries of alleged illicit liquor were busted at Patiala, Khanna, Rajpura and Sangrur. The police have arrested a number of liquor smugglers. Not only the illicit liquor was being manufactured and sold in the state, the officially licensed distilleries also allegedly indulged in the supply of liquor to the consumers through their agents.
The liquor contractors were also allegedly involved in this clandestine business of selling liquor during the lockdown. Truckloads of liquor were sold by the distilleries without any license not only in Punjab but outside the state as well. There was a large scale smuggling of liquor from Chandigarh where it is cheap and also from Haryana.
All types of liquor including Punjab Desi and Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) were available in any quantity. Even scotch was also available in large supplies.
As the government allowed the opening of the liquor vends, the vendors first refused to open the vends and then came out with a demand to waive the license fee for the lockdown period. The state government had already suffered a loss of revenue worth about Rs 600 crores.
The issue granting any concession to the liquor vends became a political issue and the opposition parties strongly assailed the ruling party for its failure to check the illicit and illegal sale of liquor.
The Punjab cabinet was yet to take the final decision when there was a tiff between the Chief Secretary and some ministers of Punjab cabinet. At a pre-cabinet meeting to discuss the issue of giving any concession to the liquor vends, there was fight between Finance Minister Manpreet Singh Badal; Technical Education Minister Charanjit Singh Channi and Chief Secretary Karan Avtar Singh, who was holding the charge of excise department as well.
The Chief Secretary had brought some note for the meeting and Manpreet Badal and Channi objected to the alleged behaviour of the Chief Secretary in the meeting. They staged a walkout and Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa, Jails Minister, also went out with them.
The Chief Minister was not present and the members of the cabinet present decided not to attend the meetings of cabinet where Chief Secretary would be present. The Chief Secretary is to conduct the cabinet meeting and record the proceedings. Thus stalemate occurred in the Punjab cabinet and there was a demand for the removal of the Chief Secretary.
The Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh was in a quandary. Some Congress legislators even levelled allegations against the Chief Secretary that he had conflict of interest as his son was involved in the liquor business. Opponents of Amarinder Singh like Partap Singh Bajwa raised the issue and demanded removal of the Chief Secretary and a high level enquiry.
The Chief Minister took his time to cool down the things and he restored to lunch diplomacy. First he invited Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa Minister, Amarinder Singh Raja Warring and Sangat Singh, Congress legislators, for lunch to his farm house. Then he invited Manpreet Badal and Charanjit Singh Channi for lunch and discussed the matter with them.
In the meantime, Charanjit Singh Channi alleged that he had been threatened by Tripat Rajinder Singh Bajwa, Minister for Higher Education, on caste basis. However, Chief Minister managed things and called the meeting of the cabinet where Chief Secretary Karan Avtar Singh expressed his regret for his behaviour in the pre-cabinet meeting and the matter was settled.
The Chief Secretary was divested of the excise department and this was given to A Venu Prasad, Principal Secretary, who is also holding the charge of power and the Chariman of Punjab State Power Corporation Ltd.
Immediately, after taking over the charge of excise department, Venu Prasad ordered the transfer of 20 excise and taxation officers (ETOs) and 20 inspectors of the excise department who were supervising the functioning of the distilleries. The distilleries were raided and their records were checked and allegedly some discrepancies were found in the same.
One liquor contractor told this writer that liquor vends had suffered heavy losses during the lockdown. The state government has waived the license fee of the lockdown period and no other relaxation has been granted to them.
He lamented that the liquor vends were facing losses as lakhs of migrant labourers, who were the main consumers of liquor, have gone back to their native states and the sales have come down.
The smuggled liquor is still being sold by the mafia which has the patronage of the politicians of all hues. The government will not be able to realise the targeted excise revenue this year too.
Punjab state has been rocked yet with another scam which is known as paddy seem scam in which alleged spurious seed of paddy varieties PR 128 and PR 129 was sold to the Punjab farmers. The two new paddy varieties have been developed by the Punjab Agricultural University.
The Punjab Agricultural University has claimed that it has not released seed of the two varieties for commercial purposes and only 300 quintals of seed has been raised after field trials. However, it is alleged more than 3,000 quintals of seed of these varieties has been sold in Punjab.
The Punjab police have registered a criminal case in this connection and arrested a number of seed dealers in Punjab. The Chief Minister has set up a SIT under the Chairmanship of Sukhjinder Singh Sarkaria, Minister for Water Resources and Environment, to enquire into the scandal.
The opposition parties are holding the ruling party responsible for the scam. The Union Agriculture Ministry has also taken note of this scam on the complaints of Harsimrat Kaur Badal, Union Food Processing Minister, and sought report from the Punjab government.
KS Chawla is a senior journalist based at Ludhiana.
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