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It is 7.30pm and the sky has been dark for hours following an early winter sunset. Close to a dozen men stand at a spot in Hyderabad’s Qasimabad area. They appear anxious and impatient, until a Suzuki Cultus appears; with dimmed headlights, it slows down near them.
The car belongs to Chanda, one of Hyderabad’s most popular bootleggers.
As it stops, the men make hurried strides to the doors of the vehicle and swift transactions begin. Money is counted and given, cans and bottles are handed over without the fuss of a brown paper bag. Chanda concludes his business at the spot and speeds off to another nearby, where eager customers wait for their supply.
At one location, customers appear more aloof and less desperate. This is because a police mobile is positioned nearby, but Chanda knows the police will not bother him.
He is quite aware of his status as a local celebrity of sorts. He rose to fame, or perhaps infamy, when a secretly captured video of him selling alcohol from his car went viral on social media and was televised on a news channel. Following the scandal, the Qasimabad police are said to have charged him for possessing “two” pints of alcohol. He was soon freed on bail, and since then it has been business as usual for him.
Chanda’s trade starts after sunset and continues till 12pm everyday – regardless of the Sindh High Court’s brief recent ban on wine shops.
His clients confirm that the bootlegger and his agents deliver pints at different spots in the city including Wadhu Wah, City Gate Hotel, Ali Palace, Qasimabad and Sehrish Nagar.
Like riders delivering fast food, his agents simply carry the liquor to their customers on bikes once orders are placed over the phone. But without Chanda, there is no alcohol.
As his clientele diversified over time, the bootlegger began to supply foreign liquor along with the locally brewed stuff.
“Only recently he has added the sale of foreign brands and beer to make an extra buck,” a policeman, Khalid, told Dawn.
Much to the chagrin of licensed shop-owners, the brief closure of wine shops across the province did not deter bootleggers like Chanda from continuing their lucrative trade.
Conversations and behaviour of police officials near the spots where Chanda openly sells alcohol suggests that not only are law-enforcers in the know, many benefit from this business.
With a sly smile, a serving station house officer (SHO) said that his own friends keep asking him for help in procuring liquor.
“[Chanda’s] supplies are either coming from godowns or from people who had procured large stocks of liquor before retail shops were finally closed,” Khalid said.
The SHO revealed that the ban prompted bootleggers to employ the services of women, who worked as carriers bringing liquor from Karachi in private cars.
Forget hurdles, the ban merely benefitted Chanda’s business; as alcohol became harder to get, there was a steep rise in prices quoted by bootleggers.
“We sold a half-litre pint of gin for Rs350 usually. [During the ban] it was sold for Rs1,000 to Rs1,200. The price of a litre pint shot up to Rs2,500 from Rs700,” a licensed wine wholesaler and retailer Amit Kumar told Dawn.
While many celebrated the ban as a welcome move, officials of the provincial excise department claimed they were losing revenue under excise duty that is recoverable on sale of alcohol by retailers and wholesalers.
Following the SHC’s Oct 27 decision to revoke licences, owners of licensed wine shops had filed a petition to the SC on Nov 15.
They said that they were law-abiding citizens who paid duties amounting to Rs3 billion in 2015.
There are 26 licensed wine shops across Hyderabad division alone. And in Hyderabad district, there are 10 retail outlets and three warehouses [wholesales points] that are registered with the divisional excise office.
According to an excise department source, recovery of excise duty on alcohol in Hyderabad division stood at Rs698m against a target of Rs826m in the financial year 2015-16. For fiscal year 2016-17, the department’s target is Rs837m in the Hyderabad division.
Last year, against a target of Rs541m, the department recovered Rs553m in Hyderabad district — showing 102 per cent recovery. For the district, the target is Rs548m in 2016-17.
“Recovery between July, August and September remained normal. Then came the ban in the third week of October. Until then our recovery was 99 per cent,” the officer said.
Licensed supplies of alcohol reach Hyderabad and other cities from three factories, one each in Karachi, Murree and Quetta with the entire excise duty being received in advance — half of it at the time of issuance of bank challan and remainder at the time of delivery that follows procedural requirements including application from client, challan and issuance of permits.
Rs3m is the expense per vehicle carrying 650 cartons (with 12 one-litre bottles or 24 half-litre bottles), Amit Kumar estimates. This includes provincial excise duty, sales and withholding taxes.
Roughly, Kumar added, profit on a single consignment of 650 cartons is Rs200,000-Rs250,000 — after all conventional and ‘unconventional’ expenses have been deducted.
“We also pay the concerned police stations, concerned DSP or in-charge Crime Investigation Agency (CIA) and excise taxation officer (ETO), activists of political parties etc. Otherwise we can’t work,” he said.
“Running a licensed shop is a different ball game. It’s a tricky business, indeed, in which you have to have a minority parliamentarian or minister as your business partner or backing at least,” said another retailer.
The retailers allege that they do nothing illegal.
According to Amit, it is only an authorised gunman posted at the shop who is a Muslim. “The entire staff, including our accountant, manager and salesman, comes from the Hindu community and is duly authorised by the excise department. Our accountant makes sure [if alcohol is] sold to a Muslim, [it] is entered in name of some non-Muslim with national identity card (NIC) number,” Amit added, not realising the fault in this argument.
The shops are back in business for now, but customers are nervous; due to the looming uncertainty, they buy entire cartons so that they are better prepared if the ban is to be reintroduced.
“I had to buy a carton of 12 pints for Rs30,000 the cost of which is to be shared by me and my friends,” a regular drinker told Dawn.
Names have been changed to protect identity.