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As India Reopens Liquor Stores, Customers Line Up — But Overcrowding Forces Closures

Police officials patrol as people stand in line to buy alcohol in Kolkata on Monday.
Police officials patrol as people stand in line to buy alcohol in Kolkata on Monday.

When liquor stores reopened across India on Monday for the first time in nearly six weeks, little circles painted on the pavement were supposed to help customers maintain a safe distance. But Indians paid them little heed.

Lines formed at dawn and snaked around city blocks, stretching more than a mile in some places, with little social distancing. In the capital New Delhi, police used batons to disperse crowds.

The chaos that ensued posed risks of infection, and led some states to reverse the decision to reopen liquor stores or levy higher taxes to deter crowds.

The government recently extended a nationwide lockdown until May 18, but allowed liquor stores to reopen. For most Indian states, excise duty on alcohol accounts for 10% to 15% of tax revenue.

Alcohol consumption doubled in India between 2005 and 2016. But many of the country's religions — Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism and Jainism, for example — prohibit or discourage drinking alcohol. Some Indian states are dry. In others, alcohol is subject to high rates of tax, sometimes known as sin taxes, levied on items some consider immoral.

On Tuesday, India recorded nearly 3,900 new cases of COVID-19 — more than any day so far. The country, with a population of 1.3 billion, has more than 33,000 active cases of COVID-19 and almost 1,700 deaths.

In Mumbai, which accounts for about a fifth of all of India's COVID-19 cases so far, municipal authorities late Tuesday ordered liquor stores and other nonessential shops to close again. In Delhi, authorities imposed a new 70% "special corona fee" on alcohol sales.

In the southern state of Karnataka, alcohol sales Tuesday totaled nearly $26 million, a single-day record. Police in the state capital Bengaluru filed a case against one shop owner after a customer's receipt for booze worth some $700 circulated on social media. Retailers are not allowed to sell more than 2.3 liters of hard liquor or 18.2 liters of beer per customer per day.

Social media was flooded with posts marking the end of the liquor store closure. One video shows patrons waiting to buy alcohol in a hailstorm in northern India. Another shows a man tossing flower petals on people standing in line in New Delhi. "You are the economy of our country," he says, bowing with folded hands. "Our government doesn't have any money."

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