Prasanna Mishra

While Delhi's Liquor Policy has been in national news for some time and has been the reason for a few high-profile detentions in the national capital, Odisha’s Liquor Policy has been kept away from mainstream media coverage for over two decades though the policy has a few highly abnormal features. Odisha is the only state now to have been continuing with mohua-based out-still system and this obnoxious practice has been in vogue in 22 of the 33 Excise Districts of the state.

Country Spirit is allowed only in 10 Excise Districts in the erstwhile Districts of Balasore, Cuttack, and Puri. Both for the Foreign and Desi liquor, the shops are never put to annual settlement through auction. The shops continue with the existing lessees with a revision of fee every year. The strange system is akin to the traditional Hindu marriage bond. The government and the liquor merchants seem tied in a knot of understanding till perpetuity. 

Odisha’s revenue from state excise was Rs 6,455 crore in 2022-23 showing healthy buoyancy -17% more than the revenue of the previous year. Revenue from mohua-based out-still (OS) liquor that is prevalent in 22 Excise Districts, however, would be just 7 to 8 % of the total excise revenue.

The state had 551 main OS shops and 1465 Branch OS Shops in 2022-23. In the current year, 80 main shops and 297 branch OS shops have not been renewed. Non-renewal has been most pronounced in Mayurbhanj District with 87 branch OS shops and 26 main OS shops not having been renewed.  Rourkela, Sundargarh, Ganjam, Berhampur and Gajapati districts also registered more cases of non-renewal of OS shops (both main and branch). 

As per official reports, the OS shops in 2022-23 utilised 15.34 lakh quintals of Mohua flower for producing liquor. The official figure that the OS shops produced in 2022-23 as much as 644 lakh London Proof Litres of liquor is too fancifully large to be believed. In the absence of reliable data, it is impossible to say how much country liquor is sold to consumers. Since an OS shop has an exclusive privilege area around it, the vendor zealously guards the area under his charge and effectively keeps the area free from illicit production and sale of liquor by anybody else in the area. It is, however, an open secret that his agents do rampant retail sale in almost every village.
There are possibilities of unaccounted production of liquor in the out-still and selling of liquor of more than 70 UP to the credulous consumers. The same vendors working year after year for over two decades would surely become powerful and would run the business to their advantage.

The Department has been suffering from inadequate manpower and an effective vigil may well be impossible. OS liquor trade therefore is highly profitable and mohua-based liquor being affordable, has made more and more people addicted to alcohol. The percentage of the population consuming alcohol in Odisha has gone up alarmingly. As per data from National Family Health Survey-5 carried out from 2019 to 2021, the percentage of males over 15 years of age consuming alcohol is 28.8 as against India’s average of 18.8% and Odisha is well ahead of states like Punjab (22.6%), Maharashtra (13.9%), Kerala (19.9), Rajasthan (11), W Bengal (18.1). Even the percentage of females in Odisha over 15 years consuming alcohol during this period is 4.3%, much higher than India's average of 1.3%. Odisha is ahead of states like Punjab (0.3), Tamil Nadu (0.3), West Bengal (1.1), and Kerala (0.2). Odisha with 21 lakh such people in 2018 was among the top ten states having a maximum number of people who were in need of help for alcohol problems. 

No wonder, after over two decades of an exploitative excise policy of mahua-based out-still liquor manufacture and sale, the state has emerged highly alcohol prone and slipped into greater depths of rural poverty. Many States have opted for better alternatives. Out-still system has been dispensed with. Many states have only IMFL while some have introduced low alcohol Ready to Drink (RTD) Beverages. Odisha however remains stuck with Mohua-based liquor for the bulk of its population presumably on affordability consideration thereby, proving once again that despite the much talked about fast economic progress made by the BJD-led government in 23 years, widespread poverty remains entrenched in the state. Out-still arrangement for years, sadly, has been a milch cow for all stakeholders.

The huge cash piles seized by the Income Tax Authorities in Odisha’s economically underdeveloped zone from the premises connected with the out-still liquor manufacture and sale should not come as a surprise. With similar drives in other areas where the out-still system operates, more discovery was possible. Belatedly the state excise commissioner has started looking into factors that made such cash accumulation possible. Political forces within the state have been pointing to lapses in the state government and are critical of the ruling party. Surely both the state government and the ruling party have to do a lot of explaining. 

A time has come to have a relook at Odisha’s prevailing excise policy. There is a strong case for total abolition of the mohua-based out-still system. In 1994, the then Chief Minister did away with the system in the tribal sub-plan area. It is a paradox that the regional party in power for over two decades did not appreciate the farsight shown by Biju Patnaik. The time has come to set right that historical wrong.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)