200 meters to redemption : on Meghalaya wine store clampdown

April 1st is supposed to be a day for jovial, jocular jest. A day of tricks, pranks and little white lies meant to bring about a hearty laugh from your friends. However, in 2016 this day of merriment took a turn for the bizzare for the citizens of Shillong. They suddenly found themselves aghast, clutching at their parched throats, spluttering and fumbling, trembling and disoriented. Perhaps a drink would have steadied them, calmed their nerves, soothed their chaotic minds, but that very drink was the cause of this shocking state of affairs.

On April 1, 2016 the Meghalaya government shut down wine stores and bars across the state, citing an amendment in Rule 183 of the Meghalaya Excise Act which ruled that bars and wine shops would not be allowed to operate within a 200 meter radius of educational institutions, places of worship and hospitals. The administration further claimed that they were following a Supreme Court directive that banned the sale of liquor along the national highway.

Let’s put this in context, running 200 meters is an actual Olympic event. It is an actual test of physicality to run 200 meters. Perhaps the administration is nudging the citizens of Shillong towards a healthier lifestyle through the exercise of running back and forth from the wine store. But the reasons for this ban are not in the interests of us flexing our muscles.

God, highway accidents, education and hospitals are the holy quartet being brandished by the administration as the reasons behind this perplexing move. In the addressal of the absurdity of this act, let us leave aside the law recommending a ban on liquor shops on highways. Alcohol plus driving equals more accidents. Rational move, but what about the other reasons that have been mentioned.

First and foremost of these reasons is God. Places of worship. Religious institutions. God is tired of punishing rapists and druglords and has now apparently turned his displeasure towards the tipplers of Shillong. He speaks down into the hallowed ears of the policy makers and says, ‘Nay, let the drunkards stay far from where you all gather to worship my almighty presence.’ And his devotees say ‘Yes, we cannot focus on you Lord because at a distance of merely 190 meters we sense a man buying liquor. It makes our skin crawl. It gives us heavy hearts and it makes us weep for we know it to be wrong.’

People need to have a 200 meter safety zone around them to worship God. Without this comforting safety net of virtue, the sanctity of their connections to the almighty are somehow tarnished. Strength of faith is one of the foundation stones of religion. If a devotee cannot muster enough strength to ignore the presence of a liquor shop nearby, then they clearly are not religious enough.

The second reason is education. Little children walking out of school forever scarred by the vision of a shady looking man emerging from a liquor store with a wide grin on his face and a spring in his step. Oh god the horror! To be very realistic, the educational institutions in Shillong have a lot more to be worried about than nearby alcohol outlets. The mass exodus of a large percentage of students who actually want to pursue further studies, instead of ‘enjoy college life liah’, stands as a testament to the failure of our educational institutes to provide the necessary tools to equip their students to achieve the life goals that they aspire towards.

That should ideally be a more pressing concern than the presence of a liquor store within a designated distance of a school or college.

The hospitals were probably just thrown in as an afterthought. The administration don’t want grieving relatives to binge drink and the only sedatives that they want inside their patients are the really nasty ones.

After logically looking at these reasons, let us now carefully place logic inside a toilet bowl and flush it away. After all legality can sometimes contradict logic, so let us just shrug and accept the reasons cited because the administration has instructed us to.

In states like Odisha, Assam and Madhya Pradesh, the same rules prescribing some distance between liquor stores and places of worship, hospitals and educational institutions apply. However the distance prescribed is a reasonable 50 meters. One wonders why that figure was increased fourfold, especially considering the size of Shillong.

Moreover this move is contradictory to the traditions of this great town of ours. Indulgence in a drink now and then is part and parcel of Shillong society. While in other parts on India people turn up their noses and treat liquor like some fatal poison of the soul, we in Shillong revel in it, most toeing the fine line between good times and alcoholism.

Even if the government wanted to curb alcoholism, is prohibition the real cure? The failure of prohibition in America in the early 1900’s has been a lesson that history has taught us which has been lost amidst the hoopla of mass induced delusions of good and evil. The black market for liquor in Shillong will flourish in these circumstances and money which would have been filling state coffers will now line the pockets of hustlers and pushers. Never mind the extra cost and inconvenience to the general public.

This surprising move also contradicts the tourism agenda that the state had taken up with such fervour. People on vacation like to drink. They like to drink a lot. Whatever happened to rock city man? You can’t party like a rockstar unless you have a few crates of booze along. All that Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple playing in a taxi isn’t worth shit if there aren’t some piss drunk young lads singing along by the side of the road with periodic shouts of ‘aiihiew’.

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Asheen Chowdhury Written by:

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