Liquor stores Delhi’s first port of call

Extraordinary scenes of chaos were witnessed as queues, longer than a kilometre, were seen before liquor stores in Ashram, Govindpuri, Vasant Vihar, Mayur Vihar and many other places. At most places, the buyers not only defied social distancing norms, many were not wearing masks.
A long queue of people flouting social distance outside a government liquor shop after relaxations allowing their opening, in Chander Nagar, New Delhi.(Sonu Mehta/HT PHOTO)
A long queue of people flouting social distance outside a government liquor shop after relaxations allowing their opening, in Chander Nagar, New Delhi.(Sonu Mehta/HT PHOTO)
Updated on May 05, 2020 07:33 AM IST
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Hindustan Times, New Delhi | BySoumya Pillai and Prawesh Lama, New Delhi

Hundreds of people lined up before government-run liquor shops since Monday morning, jostling, pushing and pulling at each other in complete defiance of social distancing norms, as the fight against Covid-19 entered its third phase with the government providing considerable relaxation in lockdown curbs as part of a phase-wise exit plan.

At many places, the police had to lathicharge and at some others, shops were shut to prevent a riot-like situation. The Delhi government had allowed opening of standalone liquor shops between 9am and 6.30pm, according to directives issued by the Union home ministry after the national lockdown was extended till May 17.

Extraordinary scenes of chaos were witnessed as queues, longer than a kilometre, were seen before liquor stores in Ashram, Govindpuri, Vasant Vihar, Mayur Vihar and many other places. At most places, the buyers not only defied social distancing norms, many were not wearing masks. This prompted the special branch of Delhi Police to suggest that the timings for the sale of liquor be extended to avoid crowding at outlets.

The sale of liquor had been banned during the operation of the lockdown till May 3.

On Monday, 349 cases of Covid-19 were reported in Delhi, taking the total to 4,898.

As the numbers outside stores in east, central and south-east Delhi swelled, the police ordered liquor shops to shut. Undeterred, the crowds were seen racing to other liquor shops in the vicinity to try their luck.

At the Lajpat Nagar flyover, near Sriniwaspuri, the queue of buyers caused a traffic jam, prompting police to lathicharge the crowd several times during the day.

The situation at the start of the day was under control. When the shutters of a liquor shop in Pitampura’s Varun Niketan opened at 11 am, the crowd cheered. They took photographs, hailed the decision and some even said that the coronavirus would be a thing of the past.

Outside all liquor stores, people eagerly waited with shopping bags, backpacks and gurney bags to hoard bottles.

“When I was walking to open the shutter, I felt like a celebrity. We have not had a free minute; people have been continuously coming since the morning. Two policemen are stationed around the shop to ensure that people stick to queues,” said Dhruv Kumar, owner of a store in Varun Niketan.

The crowd was a mix of Delhi residents, as seen from the SUVs, sedans, motorcycles and cycle rickshaws parked in the vicinity. Some had even walked around four to five kilometres to the nearest shop. On the roads, people inquired one other about crowds outside other shops in the vicinity.

“People have suddenly become helpful and are guiding each other about the location of the shops. I usually drink whisky and beer but today (Monday), even if I get vodka, I am going to buy it. The government cannot close shops indefinitely,” said Gopal Dong, a Delhi University student.

However, within an hour of the shops opening, lines got longer and the people, more restless. The crowding outside the counters forced the authorities to shut shops and turn customers away. Delhi police officers said that by around 3pm, almost 90% of the shops were shut. They will open on Tuesday.

As word spread of shops being shut, those waiting in lines started hoarding, fearing that the liquor stores would not be opened again. A store in Karol Bagh shut by 2pm due to massive crowding, while similar incidents were reported from Shahdara and other parts of east Delhi.

The joint commissioner of police (eastern range), Alok Kumar, said, “We did not resort to lathicharge but used mild force to disperse the crowd. Our officers were on the ground and were continuously in touch with the shop owners to remind them that they weren’t following social distancing rules. The few shops that were open today shut on their own. We will follow the government’s order and ensure that people are disciplined in queues.”

In the evening, chief minister Arvind Kejriwal said that shops where social distancing norms are not followed will be shut. He urged residents to follow the norms to ensure that the relaxations continue.

“I have heard reports on incidents of chaos and crowding outside certain shops. These shops were not opened for a limited time; they will open again tomorrow and the day after. I am concerned about your health and the health of your families. We want to slowly resume activities, but we will have to seal area if social distancing is not followed, for you and your safety,” Kejriwal said at a press briefing.

Mushtaq Ali, a licensed vendor in east Delhi’s Trilokpuri, said that soon after the Delhi government issued the order on Sunday, they were given a set of guidelines by the state excise department on the conditions of running operations again. All those at the counters were asked to mandatorily wear masks and gloves. The shop owners were also asked to ensure social distancing outside the shops.

The Centre had directed shopkeepers to ensure a gap of at least two yards between each person.

“People are standing in queues, but they are barely maintaining distance. We had marked circles to ensure there is a distance between customers, but because a lot of people are turning up, no one seems to be following that,” Ali said.

In south Delhi’s Vasant Vihar, the long queues became a reason for major concern among the residents, who had managed to curtail movement of outsiders to a minimum. The Vasant Vihar Welfare Association took to social media and informed authorities about a crowd of several hundreds outside a shop.

The queue at a liquor shop in C-Block market, on Paschimi Marg, also led to traffic jams in the area. In the Basant Lok market, shop owners restricted purchases to two bottles per person. “It was a disappointing move by the government to allow liquor shops to open. The number of cases is still on the rise and you are risking the safety of your citizens like this. Hours before the shops opened, people started lining up here,” said Sumukhi Das, a resident of Vasant Vihar C-Block.

In southwest Delhi’s Palam Colony, people were seen carrying crates of beer bottles from the shops and filling the boot of their cars. “Last time, the shops just closed without any warning. Maybe if we were given some time, we would have stocked up. The government should have anticipated this rush and made arrangements accordingly,” said Monty Singh, a resident of Palam Village, who bought five crates of beers and a bottle of rum.

Meanwhile, senior Delhi police officers said the police district DCPs are holding meetings with shop owners and have asked them to rope in more volunteers to ensure that such problems do not arise on Tuesday. More shops are expected to open on Tuesday.

“The police dispersed the crowd here thrice. I also got hit on my knee. That pain is bearable. I will return tomorrow. We will die if we do not get liquor soon,” a rickshaw puller, who was returning home empty-handed after waiting for four hours in Sriniwaspuri, said.

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Wednesday, December 01, 2021