Thursday 12 July 2012

India’s anti-alcohol laws: Inspector Killjoy


A crackdown highlights the problems with a modern city’s archaic rules

IF A Bollywood scriptwriter had to dream up a killjoy cop, he would base him on Vasant Dhoble. Over the past month Mumbai’s police have been shutting down parties and confiscating bars’ music systems in a drive to regulate the city’s nightlife. Leading the drive has been Mr Dhoble, the head of the city police’s “social services” division.

A stocky figure in his 50s sporting a moustache, Mr Dhoble has gained cartoon-villain status among hip Mumbaikers. An anti-Dhoble Facebook group has attracted over 20,000 members. Urbane newspapers witheringly describe him as a teetotal vegetarian. Bloggers have shared video footage that shows him roughing up employees at a juice bar, armed with a hockey stick.

The crackdown intensified on May 20th, when officers broke up a party at a hotel. Guests were rounded up and blood-tested. Police cited the Bombay Prohibition Act of 1949, which states that even customers must have a permit to booze. Mr Dhoble is making a speciality of dusting off old edicts—alcohol was banned in the state of Maharashtra, which the city of Mumbai (then Bombay) dominates, until 1963. Many prohibition-era laws have not been updated, yet until recently were rarely enforced.

Mr Dhoble or his officers have also shown up at five of the city’s high-end bars this month, slapping fines on them for overcrowding or for allowing DJs to perform without the correct licences. At another bar, some women customers were detained on suspicion of being prostitutes, leading to a defamation lawsuit against Mr Dhoble that was dismissed on June 20th. Bar-owners say turnout has dropped as nervous customers have chosen to stay at home.

Mr Dhoble’s crackdown highlights a wider grievance among Mumbai’s business crowd, all of whom complain about archaic and fiddly rules (be they citywide, statewide or national laws). Bar-owners say they need up to 20 licences to run a single drinking hole, and up to three-dozen if music is also to be allowed. Property developers grumble that they have to provide the original plan of a building they wish to overhaul. One art dealer is fed up with the lengthy process by which sculptures for export must officially be confirmed as not being antiques—even contemporary pieces in fibreglass. 

The World Bank ranked India 132nd out of 183 countries in last year’s “Ease of Doing Business” report.

Mr Dhoble, at least, appears honest. But outdated rules create opportunities for graft—one reason they remain in place. A bar-owner says that when setting up a venue last year, Mumbai officials expected a bribe equal to the cost of each licence they issued. One licence cost over $6,000. Officials ask the art dealer for under-the-table fees before sculptures for export can be signed off. A property lawyer says he just thinks of corruption as part of the process—itself an example of how a supposedly go-ahead city can stay stuck firmly in the past.

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