Nagpur: The downside of the Supreme Court order of December 2016 banning serving of liquor in city hotels that fall on highways running through the city is visible for all to see after 6 months.
Most popular places affected
It is unfortunate that the most popular and successful restaurants, bars and hotels of Nagpur all lie on roads that can be deemed to be either state or national highways, though this definition is also under a question mark now.
If we just speak of Sadar, there is a row of hotels that have been disturbed.
Ashokas, which is over 60 years old, and is the first fine dining restaurant of Central India, Moti Mahal in front which is almost equally old and popular, Hotel Tuli with its restaurants like Frontier Post…all wear a deserted look. If you go further up and down the Mount Road that crosses the Sadar main road, there are Sanjha Chullah, Bullock cart, Arjun, Zinc; on the other side there are V5, LB etc. – just a peek and you will know how badly they are faring.
If you go further south towards Sitabaldi area, there is 10 Downing street followed by Moksha, and all the hotels that lie on the Wardha road: Airport Centre Point , Raddison Blu and numerous others , all are under a ‘dry spell’ even in Monsoons.
If you visit any of these places now, they are a whisper of their earlier selves.
Footfalls are down to 15% of earlier days, and in this month of Shravan, even less!
And the tragedy is that since most of Nagpur’s restaurants are situated on ‘internal highways’ 80% of old and existing hotels have been affected.
Hoteliers speak up
“It has been a very regressive decision and has hurt Hospitality business very drastically” says Manoj Bali, G.M. of Raddison Blu without mincing words.
“The decision seems to have been taken on grounds of misplaced ‘Morality’ and emotion without taking many hard facts into account” says Mandeep Singh Padam, owner of Sanjha Chulha.
The financial hardships
It is a fact that many of these places like Sanjha Chullah, Airport Centre Point, V5 etc. have been recently expanded and/ or renovated taking loans from financial institutions/ banks and are in ‘hot soup’ now.
“Letting go of trained and loyal staff is very painful. Such employees are not easy to come by, but we are having to do it” says a restaurant Manager.
Serving alcohol was just a small part, but has affected entire business!
As Mandeep says, “we are not wine shops or pure ‘bars’ we are fine dining places where families come for the entire gamut of experiences. While kids want a play area, ladies want a break from routine and men want to relax with a glass of chilled beer. So in a table of 8, only one or two may be ordering drinks; but now the whole group stops coming!”
“It is not as if we had no control over how much liquor we served to anyone, we ensured no one drank over the limit, and further we only served by the drink (30 or 60 ml) we did not sell liquor bottles! So how could we have been included in the ban to protect ‘highways?’ ”
“The ban on serving liquor strikes at the very root of our business” complains Manoj Bali of Raddison Blu, “we are one of Nagpur’s few 5 star hotels where many foreign guests come in regularly as room guests. They are habituated to their beer, wine or scotch, it is an integral part of a 5 star hotel’s ‘hospitality’ to serve these; they find it very odd when we have to say No!”
(Ironically, guests are allowed to carry their own liquor and drink in their rooms, but even the room ‘bars’ cannot keep liquor. All wine shops on highways also being shut down, how would a foreign guest know where to go to source his favorite beer/ wine bottle?)
Why is there confusion about where highways begin and end ?
After the Supreme Court order came, it is learnt that the state’s Accounts and Excise Department wrote to the National Highway Authority of India, NHAI, to define where the national highways began and ended within city limits.
The NHAI, gave a comprehensive list giving these details and explaining parameters.
For instance, Highway Number 47, is supposed to ‘stop being a highway from Pagal khana chowk on one side till Jamtha on the other’.
So why is the liquor ban being enforced within this area too?
The SC itself helped resolve this dilemma of the state governments by replying to a review petition that roads falling within the city need not be made to comply with ruling. Only outside roads with fast moving traffic were to be considered highways.
The question the affected and suffering from 6 months hoteliers are asking is – why did the Apex Court not give directions, why only suggestions?
Nagpur Hospitality industry disappointed with C.M. and Union Minister’s stance
“They say Nagpur is the second capital of the state, and we, ‘being Nagpurians’ are partial to this city! But they are in fact giving us a step motherly treatment. When roads in Mumbai, Kolhapur, even Jalgaon, Latur and Yawatmal have been denotified, why not Nagpur?” Many are asking.
Nagpur being still undeveloped industrially, Hospitality industry is its one shining spot. It offers employment to many and there are also many scions of rich families who have returned to Nagpur to be part of this industry where, till now, chances of succeeding were bright.
This industry has also been scotched now.
“Restaurants without permits are happier!”
International experience has shown that ‘prohibition’ in any form is impossible to enforce!
If you prevent 80% of eateries and bars from serving liquor, it does not mean habitual drinkers will stop drinking! They will find ways around it.
So open air restaurants and dhabas that dot the city, within and outside, are doing roaring business with ‘bring your own bottle’ quick fixes.
“If we, the licensed restaurants, are caught serving alcohol we are fined in lakhs on the spot! Our license is taken away.If an unlicensed eatery ‘allows’ patrons to drink and they are caught at it by Excise Dept sleuths, the hotel owners can feign ignorance and get away. That is why they ask their customers to keep the alcohol bottles under the table!”
Majority suffer while few make mockery of law
As in the fable of Animal Farm, all animals are equal but some are more equal than others; so some ‘favoured few’ restaurants seem to have connived to find a way out.
Taking up empty plots behind their properties, they are showing entrance from there to ‘cover the stipulated distance of 500 meters.
Some are counting steps to go to the ‘top floor’ where bar is supposed to be, but serving liquor even on ground floor!
Thus mockery is being made of the Apex court orders, with concerned departments turning a blind eye.
No one can blame these restaurants for trying all this, it is a matter of their survival after all, but shouldn’t the state govt. come forward and liberate everyone from this collective misery? The Supreme Court has already shown the way.
80% of wine shops closed too
If you count both country liquor and foreign made Indian liquor shops there are almost 2500 – 3000 in the city at a fair estimate.
Since most of these fall on national/ state highways they are closed for many months too.
What is the status of Ring Roads?
A section of the closed wine shops who lie on the Ring Road had approached the High Court with the plea, that as per defined by RTO and PWD Departments they are not classified under state or national highway. In Marathi, they are defined as just Rajya Marg and not Rajya ‘Mahamarg’. Rajya Mahamarg are those between two taluka or district towns and plain marg are highways within the city. So they should be allowed to remain open.
This plea had earlier been accepted and a Stay granted but it was soon revoked to ostensibly “get more details”.
Now the state government has ruled out any distinction between the Mahamarg and Marg though it remains on paper!
With 80% wine shops remaining closed for months now, there is heavy pressure on those that are still open.
Go to such wine shops in Jaripatka, Dharampeth or Bajaj Nagar and you will see a huge line of customers outside! As if some essential commodity which was in acute short supply is available for a short time!
If these shops were selling 40 – 50 bottles of beer per day first, they are selling 500 now. Sales have jumped 10 times!! No longer do they bother to sell ‘chilled beer’ – take it or leave it, beggars cannot be choosers, is their attitude.
In fact the tremendous, whole day rush caused a legitimate wine shop in Swavalambi Nagar to close down. Since 4 – 5 other shops in the periphery were falling on ring roads were closed down this shop saw an inordinate rush. Many ‘snack’ thelewallahs cropped up overnight in front of it, adding to the nuisance. Soon enough, local residents complained and now this shop has also had to close its shutters, for some time at least.
As a proprietor of 2-3 wine shops confessed, he has had to lay off all his staff working at the shops and may soon himself be looking for another business.
“Though our shops are closed, our licenses are valid, but who will go to the trouble of scouting for and opening new wine shops? A lot of ‘investment’ – both over and under the table – is involved. ”
Hercules and Hydra tale
But does the closure of these thousands of shops mean people are not drinking?
No, it is like the story of Hercules who tried in vain to kill the dragon Hydra with 100 faces. No sooner did he kill one, two sprang up!
This is happening with the wine business too, many insiders claim.
There are many fly by night ‘retailers’ who have sprung up like monsoon mushrooms.
Police and Excise department are either conniving or ‘making hay while the sun shines!’
Tired of waiting for govt. to act, both hotels and Wine shop associations have approached High Court for relief.
They await their fate from this quarter now; and are also quietly planning Plan Bs. What else to do if they have to shut down their restaurants?
—Sunita Mudaliar (Executive Editor)