Delhi is now the only metropolitan city with the high drinking age – even in Mumbai, only hard liquor is barred for those under 25, while wine and beer is allowed at 21. In major global cities such as New York and London, the drinking age is 21 and 18 respectively. (Representative Image)(Unsplash)
Delhi is now the only metropolitan city with the high drinking age – even in Mumbai, only hard liquor is barred for those under 25, while wine and beer is allowed at 21. In major global cities such as New York and London, the drinking age is 21 and 18 respectively. (Representative Image)(Unsplash)

Delhi: It’s time for liquor policy to come of age

The sale and consumption of liquor in Delhi is dogged by outdated rules, byzantine permits, and vested interests. This spoils the experience for buyers, encourages violations, and robs the state govt of precious revenue
By Sweta Goswami, New Delhi
UPDATED ON FEB 23, 2021 09:00 AM IST

In September 2015, the then seven-month-old Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government floated the idea of reducing the legal drinking age in the Capital.

The idea made sense: Delhi was one of only six states or Union territories that pegged the benchmark at 25, encouraging people to misrepresent their age, force restaurants to be lax in monitoring or lose out on revenue, and present young people with the option of travelling to watering holes in the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh, which allows drinking at 21.

But over five years later, the plan has not been implemented, despite an expert committee set up by the government recommending in December that the legal drinking age be changed to 21.

Delhi is now the only metropolitan city with the high drinking age – even in Mumbai, only hard liquor is barred for those under 25, while wine and beer is allowed at 21. In major global cities such as New York and London, the drinking age is 21 and 18 respectively.

“The drinking age is fundamentally wrong in Delhi. You can vote when you turn 18, you can get married at 18 (for women) or 21 (for men) and even have children. But, you cannot touch alcohol till 25,” said Anurag Katriar, president of the National Restaurant Association of India (NRAI).

The high drinking age is frequently observed only in violation as restaurants and businesses often fail to check age proof of patrons, and young people use fabricated documents. At most liquor vends or shops, there is no system to check for a buyer’s age. But business owners and industry experts blame the outdated rule.

“The rule is so archaic that it is bound to be violated every now and then,” said Katriar.

The law is mentioned under Section 23 of the Delhi Excise Act, 2009. “Back then most of the states had 25 as the legal drinking age and that is why the same was decided for Delhi. But, several states have reduced the age ever since,” said a senior government official on condition of anonymity.

A 48-year-old resident of Mayur Vihar in east Delhi said she was aware her 21-year-old daughter, an engineering student, drinks. “I am aware students consume alcohol in moderation in several colleges, especially in hostels,” she said.

Aware that the 25-year benchmark was impractical and frequently violated, she thought it was best to introduce her daughter to alcohol in the house, and answer her questions, to dispel the stigma around drinking.

“It was our way of handling her adulthood where we wanted to make her feel comfortable in such a way that she never has to lie to us or hide about when she consumed liquor. Families, I believe should be open about this as otherwise, the stigma attached to it makes it worse for children as they then tend to do things surreptitiously and parents aren’t able to keep a watch,” the parent, who works as an apparel designer, said.

“The matter of drinking alcohol has to be dealt with the same way we deal with sex education in schools nowadays,” she added.

The student isn’t the only one. In February 2019, Community against Drunken Driving (CADD), a non-governmental organisation, released a survey report that found 88.8% of those interviewed in Delhi consumed or bought alcohol before turning 25. The survey was conducted outside 50 prominent liquor vends, bars and restaurants in the city and included a sample size of 10,000 people, all of who were below 25.

The survey also found that 66.7% of respondents got their alcohol from bars, pubs, liquor vends and restaurants , and 19. 9% of the youth obtained alcohol from family members, friends or older siblings. There were many who got it from their own home without anyone’s knowledge, it stated. In addition, 13.6% procured alcohol at public events like food festivals, college festivals and so on.

Prince Singhal, founder, CADD, said the legal drinking age should be uniform across the country and restaurants should introduce gate-checks and post personnel at entries to examine age proof documents of patrons – in line with the system in developed countries such as the US and the UK.

“The minimum legal drinking age should be 21 across the country, not just Delhi. So, wherever it is 18 or 16 or 25, it should be made 21. But this should be done with precautions including mandatory checking of age at points of sale or consumption,” he said.

He added that the rational and better enforcement will make sure that specific laws and penalties to check underage drinking will work better, and not arbitrarily penalise some restaurants.

Restaurateur Dinesh Arora, owner of La Roca in Aerocity and Unplugged Courtyard in Connaught Place said at present, checking for age at entry is tough at the gate -- especially on weekends when there is a lot of rush.

“We face a lot of problems with expats as the legal drinking age in their country is often lower than 25. Also, a lot of young people say they did not bring IDs and show some document on their phones which sometimes are fake. Reducing the age will boost our industry as Delhi has a lot of people in the age group of 21-24,” he said.

The high drinking age makes Delhi an outlier even in India, according to an HT analysis of legal drinking ages across states. Around 60% of India’s 28 states and eight UTs allow alcohol consumption from the age of 23 and below. Only five -- Delhi, Punjab, Haryana, Chandigarh, Dadra & Nagar Haveli – bar all alcohol consumption until 25.

This forces people to often drive to Noida or Ghaziabad for a drink, and it is a “open secret” among the youth, said Ankush Malhotra, a 23-year-old resident of Vasant Kunj. Sometimes, one doesn’t even need to go out of the city. “There is hardly any check at liquor vends in Delhi and sellers only randomly ask for IDs based on appearance,” said Malhotra, an architect.

He pointed out that the law was not just archaic, but also infantilised patrons. “I am an adult and have been employed for three years now. I see no reason why I should legally not get access to alcohol. The rule is not in sync with the reality of the national Capital and needs to change,” added Malhotra.

What is worse, the Delhi government seems to be robbing itself of additional revenue with the high legal bar and arbitrary enforcement. This is when sale, excise and licence permits on alcohol are a major stream of revenue for the administration. Currently, Delhi has 1,043 hotels, restaurants and bars but counted 5028.17 crore as total excise earning (it also includes revenue from sale of liquor in 720 liquor stores in Delhi) in 2019-20, around 9% of the (budgeted) revenue that year. Experts and officials believe this could be much higher through a series of measures and changes – reducing the legal age to 21 among them.

“Reducing the legal age of drinking will increase revenue for the Delhi government. Liquor trade, in terms of volume, has remained almost flat for the last six years, despite a growing economy, increasing population, increasing per capita income,” said a senior excise official.

A senior official from deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia’s office said the government has now formed a group of ministers to review the committee’s recommendations and finalise the city’s revised excise policy.

“The Delhi government is considering lowering the age limit for alcohol consumption. For this, a group of ministers has been formed and it is evaluating every aspect. A better system will also be developed to strictly follow the age limit at liquor stores, restaurants and hotels,” the official said.

According to government data, the per capita income (at current prices) for a resident of Delhi in 2019-20 was 3,89,143. This is almost three times the national figure of 1,34,432, according to the expert committee report.

This indicates that the city will have the required buying power if the legal age is reduced. As for the demand side, 58% of Delhi’s population is below 30 and 68% of this fall under the working age group.

“More importantly, an estimated two million people have joined the legal drinking age in the past five years and this will double if the age limit is reduced,” said the senior official quoted above.

So, not just in a social sense, but, the move will also make economic sense.

In 2019, a public interest litigation (PIL) challenged the minimum age in the Delhi high court but was dismissed. The court said there is a “wrong notion” that the law prohibited drinking liquor for those below 25. “The petitioner has assumed that it is the age of drinking fixed at 25 years, but what is prohibited has nothing to do with drinking age, it is a prohibition on the licensee to serve and deliver alcohol,” the court found.

There was some hope last year that things would change, when the expert committee recommended amending the Delhi Excise Act, 2009, to lower the drinking age.

“The committee is of the view that the permitted drinking age in Delhi be brought in line with the majority of states of India and the same may be fixed at 21 years as there is transmigration of residents of Delhi from age group of 21-25 to neighbouring states to consume liquor and return back,” read the recommendation.

But nothing has moved since.

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