Karnataka’s bizarre liquor license policy

Karnataka has a rather weird liquor license policy. Some twenty years ago, back when S Bangarappa was the chief minister (if I’m not wrong) the state decided to freeze the number of bars. “Growing alcoholism” was the ostensible reason. Since then, if someone has to open a bar, the license has to be purchased from an existing bar owner who will then shut down his bar. Thus, the number of bars in the state (whose population has increased manifold since) has remained constant.

This is not the only funny aspect of liquor regulation in Karnataka.  Till recently, there was also the rather bizarre requirement that each bar sell a minimum “quota” of liquor each month. If the bar failed to do so, it had to pay “short lifting” fines. While this regulation (minimum “lifting” by bars) went much before the time when number of licenses was capped, the two can be seen to be related. When the number of licenses is capped, the state needs to ensure that it gets a certain fixed revenue out of excise licenses and sales. Fixing a minimum sale quantity ensures that licenses are not “wasted” by bars with low sales, and in case they are, the government doesn’t lose out on such sales.

A possible reason that this rather bizarre regulation on minimum sales was lifted is due to it becoming moot thanks to competition. When the number of liquor licenses is limited, the price increases, and thus bars which are selling lower amounts of liquor find it more profitable to cash out on their licenses than continue their business. Thus, bars that continue to have their licenses are those that continue to sell significant quantities, which makes the quotas moot.

Nevertheless, the cap on the number of bars means that the liquor scene in Karnataka is rather bizarre, the point being that there are no “middle class bars”. Here in Barcelona, where I’m currently on holiday, pretty much every restaurant and cafe has an alcohol license (at least beer and wine), and it is possible to have a drink in an “ordinary setting” at a reasonable price. A glass of beer at any of these establishments, for example (small quiet places which are seldom crowded), costs about EUR 1.80 (~Rs. 120 by today’s exchange rate).

In Karnataka, on the other hand, thanks to the limited licensing regime, a bar needs to do a certain minimum amount of business before it is viable. This has led to bars in Karnataka adopt one of two opposing routes. Some play the volume route, setting up an atmosphere where there is quick turnaround of customers (it can be argued that atmosphere is set up to ensure customers don’t stay too long) each of who consumes in significant volumes so that the bar can make significant amount of money despite charging only a small premium on the liqour.

At the other end you have the rather fancy “value players”, who make their margins on rather large markups on the liquor they sell. These are typically fine dining restaurants where people’s primary purpose is eating (rather than drinking) and which have rather low table turnover. A combination of the above two means that volumes are low, but such restaurants more than make up by means of significant markups. These markups are extended to non alcohol items also (these restaurants can afford to charge a premium since all other similar restaurants serving alcohol also charge the same premium, and presence of alcohol is a hygiene factor for such restaurants). Here is an old blog post where I argue why liquor regulations imply high.

So the question is if the government can do away with the bizarre regulations on minimum sales, why can’t they increase the number of liquor licenses? The problem is that it is a classic case of baptists and bootleggers. The baptist case is that by issuing more liquor licenses, it makes things easier for people to drink alcohol and that’s not a good thing for society. And the bootleggers are existing licenseholders, whose licenses will get devalued if their supply increases. I just realised I’ve already done another blog post addressing this topic.

Rememberance of birthdays past

I was about to start writing this when I realized that I’d written a similar post four years ago. So I guess I’ll talk about what I had left out in that post.

I’m a “Monday’s child”. Thirty years back to the day, I was born around 2 pm in a largish “Maternity Nursing Home” in Basavanagudi, South Bangalore. My mother had been admitted to the hospital the previous night, and it had been decided that it would be a Caesarian operation. For breakfast that morning, my father’s mother had sent “avarekaayi uppit”. My mother’s mother had sent sweet pongal. My mother had told me that she had taken only one spoon of the former and wolfed down the latter. Maybe that’s why I have a sweet tooth. Oh, and I like uppit also!

My grand-uncle (mother’s father’s brother) was concerned that the surgery was scheduled for 1:30 pm. “The stars aren’t good at that time”, he had mentioned. “If it is going to be a girl, it would be extremely difficult to get her married”. His request to the surgeon to postpone the surgery by half an hour were summarily dismissed. As it happened though, by the time I made my way out (shortly after 2 pm), the position of the stars had changed.

Number twenty eight was a week after my wedding. I had messed up in planning the flights and we figured we had to wake up at 3:30 am to catch our 7 am flight back to Bangalore. My (then new) wife had ordered for a Tiramisu to be delivered to our room at midnight and the nice folks at the Taj Samudra (Colombo) had decided to make it complimentary. A whole posse of stewards came over and sang for me.

The duty free liquor I’d picked up at the airport came with a complimentary shot of Glenlivet which I gulped down. The day was only going to go downhill from then on. I had a bad cold, and it got worse as the day went on. Lunch was at my aunt’s house and dinner at my in-laws’. We opened our wedding gifts that day and it turned out that most gifts we’d got were quite useless – they were stowed away in one corner to play “passing the parcel”.

Twenty seven involved an “illegal” visit from my then (not yet “legal”) girlfriend (now wife). That was the first occasion I brought liquor to my house. I made nice vodka cocktails for both of us and we’d ordered lunch from Ragoo’s. Early in the evening, I mentioned to her “so how do we proceed?” and she brought up an elaborate plan about when she might be ready for marriage and how we should inform our respective relatives (her parents were already in the know). We ate corn at the 17th cross park (now closed for renovation) and she showed me around Subramanyanagar.

Later that evening, my cousin told my other relatives about my girlfriend. I had decided to use the goodwill of my birthday to make sure it wasn’t taken too badly (as it turned out, all of them ended up liking her immensely, so it was perhaps unnecessary caution). That was also the first time when I hadn’t mentioned my birthday on any social network. Got a maximum of of five phone calls that day (including a “guess who” call early in the morning by my current in-laws).

Twenty nine was special. The wife made sure it was, as she bombarded me with surprises through the course of the day. Video wishes from friends, a bunch of them turning up for dinner, five new kurtas (!!), a leather laptop bag and numerous other tiny gifts (there were a total of twenty nine of them). A massive breakfast with Nitin at Maiyya’s. And the formalization of my Project Thirty. It was an all-round brilliant day.

Numbers twenty and twenty five were particularly sad. The former was spent doing assignments in IIT. Few friends remembered it was my birthday. It was around the time when I got disillusioned with birthdays and stopped expecting much out of them. The latter was supposed to be spent with a lavish lunch at aunt’s house. As it happened several other guests turned up there unannounced just as I was going there, and I got pissed off and went for a long walk. My disillusionment with birthdays only turned deeper, and was resurrected at number twenty nine (described above).

My wife plans to celebrate my thirtieth birthday by getting herself a Thai massage (she’s in Bangkok as I write this). Before she left, however, she got me to cut a cake last evening, and I found more this morning. Mother-in-law woke me up with brilliant coffee and gave me (brilliant) uppit for breakfast. She’s also given me lunch. For dinner I’ll be meeting some of my oldest friends. And there’s lots of work to do. Massive series of meetings at client’s next week. And a conference from tomorrow, and I’ve to prepare for my talk. But I’m having fun!

An Illiberal Society

Every few months or so a bunch of (mostly) Bangalore-based liberals go up in massive outrage all over the interwebs. On each occasion, the trigger for this would have been a bunch of cops raiding some bar, and imposing a new set of rules. The last time this happened, it was about cops randomly checking black-skinned people for drug possession and pushing, leading to pubs banning blacks from entering, altogether. This time, cops have instructed that pubs not play “loud, western music” and banned live music from pubs.

Already, pubs and even restaurants in Bangalore have to close by 11 pm and there is no dancing allowed (again because “dance bars” are banned). A bunch of pub-goers hanging outside a few minutes after 11 is an open invitation for the cops to enter the pub and try collect some hafta. The problems are plenty, but the biggest problem is that there is no political solution in sight.

The problem here is that however vocal and loud the liberals may be, they still don’t make up enough numbers in terms of the city’s population to make a difference. The fact of the matter is that the large majority of the city’s population (even if one were to consider only the middle classes into account) is either not bothered about these pub rules, or actually supports the new rules that the police make from time to time.

Firstly, it is not possible in order to have different rules for different kinds of pubs. So whatever rules govern say Fuga need to also govern South End Bar at the end of my road. Secondly, a large number of pubs are in residential areas, and for good reason – you do not want to go too far when you need a drink. There is some difference in terms of licenses between wine shops and bars (the former can’t “serve” liquor) but most wine shops double up as “standing bars” anyway. Hence, it is likely that you’ll have a bunch of drunks patrolling the residential streets late every night.

Thirdly, and most importantly (though I’d like the “police reforms” specialists at Takshashila to weigh in), the police force in the city is massively understaffed and underpaid. It’s not possible for our cops to make sure that despite the presence of walking drunkards, the streets are going to be safe. It will take a massive political effort in order to change this. Hence, given that it is not really possible for the cops to police the streets effectively, they resort to signaling.

By forcing all bars to shut down at a certain time, they signal to the population that they get things under control every evening, and there wouldn’t be much nuisance. The rules regarding dancing are an attempt by the police to somehow extract money out of pubs, since dance bars are officially banned (I don’t know why), and they can use the same set of rules to harass the discotheques. Loud music is again to gain credence among neighbours (remember that most pubs are in residential areas) that they’re doing something about the “menace”. The ban on “loud western music” is inexplicable.

This police harassment of bars is not a standalone problem, it’s part of a bigger problem in terms of police reforms. As a stand alone problem, though, given the small proportion of people it affects, I don’t foresee a good solution. What needs to be done is to aggregate all stakeholders who are affected by this – regular pub/discgoers, pub owners (very important), liquor companies, people selling cigarettes and bondas late in the night, and collectively lobby for change in regulation. It’s not going to be an easy battle, considering that a large proportion of the city’s population is conservative, and will be up in arms against any change in rules. It won’t be an easy task either, since liberal but lazy parties like me (who prefer to get wasted at home) will also not lend support.

On Hating Talisker

I must thank Mohits Senior and Junior for introducing me to the wonderful world of Single Malts in general, and to Talisker in particular. If I remember right, this was at a meeting of a certain secret society in Senior’s house, where Junior had procured the said substance. I remember being floored by it, and thinking I’d never thought liquor could taste so good. And till yesterday I used to think no one can ever hate this drink.

The first time I got down to buying a bottle of it (though I’d had it by the glass a couple of times outside) was in a duty free shop on my way back from my honeymoon last winter. The wife, as I’d expected, took a huge liking for it. In fact, it seemed like she liked it much more than I did. I must also mention here that for a very long time, that bottle of Talisker was the only liquor available at home.

So whenever we would fight (in our early days of marriage it was quite often, I must admit) the wife would want to distract herself and cool off by “lightening” herself. And would gulp down some Talisker straight from the bottle, as I stood aside, aghast. The subject matter of the fight would be  quickly forgotten, with my foremost thought being “what a waste of such fine booze”, and she being distracted by the contents of the said booze.

That first bottle of Talisker didn’t last too long.

So on our way back from Italy and Greece this summer, I bought another bottle of Talisker. And even before I got it billed, I told the wife that it wasn’t for gulping down, and especially not she was angry. I’ll keep a bottle of cheap whisky at home, I said, for her to drink when angry, and the Talisker should be accessed only when we’re looking to savour our drink.

So last night, on the occasion of her birthday, we decided we want to savour some drink, and down came the bottle of Talisker. She had hardly taken a couple of sips, when she handed the glass back to me. “I can’t take this any more”, she said. “Now, every time I drink Talisker, I get reminded of those times when I was angry and we would be fighting. I don’t want this any more’. So finally there exists a person who hates Talisker, for whatever reason!

For the record, I finished the rest of her drink last night.

Alco Haalu

Does anyone know why the colloquial name for liquor in Kannada is “oil” (eNNe) while the corresponding word in Tamil is “water” (thaNNi)?

Is there some kind of a caste/class origin to it, with me being biased given that most Tamilians I know are upper caste/class, and that there is a different colloquial word that is in vogue among other classes? Because “eNNe” has more of a working-class feel to it (the name, that is), and one that has been appropriated by all sections of society.

While on the topic, I learn that the Gult word for alcohol is medicine (mandu)!! Fantastic!

What is the colloquial name for alcohol in your language, and what does it mean? Put it down in the comments here.

PS: and does anyone know why alcohol bottles are sold in black polythene covers? Never seen these things being used elsewhere so if you see a black polythene cover you know there’s a good probability it’ll contain a bottle of alcohol