Friday, March 13, 2009

Shut 'belt shops', Lok Satta Urges Election Commission

The Lok Satta Party has requested the Election Commission of India to ensure that unauthorized liquor outlets in Andhra Pradesh are shut down immediately in the interest of free and fair electioneering.

In a letter to Chief Election Commissioner N. Gopalaswami, Lok Satta Party President Dr. Jayaprakash Narayan pointed out that there are more than one lakh illegal liquor outlets, known as belt shops, in Andhra Pradesh rendering ‘24/7 service’ to addicts and neophytes.

"If Andhra Pradesh is flowing with liquor and not ‘milk and honey’, the dubious credit goes to successive Governments", which have fine-tuned the policies in such a way that Government coffers overflow with revenue from excise and sales tax. "By bidding to pay a license fee of more than a crore of rupees for each shop, the operators try every trick in the trade to maximize their revenue. After all, they have to recoup the huge investments besides the hush money they pay to officials and politicians. The offshoot is the word ‘belt shop’, Andhra Pradesh’s contribution to the contemporary lexicon."

Dr. JP told the Election Commission that despite repeated agitations and representations by women's organizations and others against belt shops, the Government would not act because it does not want to forgo its revenue, and officials and politicians their regular kickbacks. The Excise Department has the temerity to repeatedly assert that there are no unauthorized outlets. "They stretch the law to claim that having a dozen liquor bottles is not illegal, ignoring that the belt shop operators trade in small lots and that selling liquor is different from stocking a dozen bottles for personal consumption."

The Lok Satta President pointed out that vast quantities of liquor are consumed, mostly through these unauthorized and illegal belt shops during electioneering and on the eve of polls. "Needless to say, most of this liquor during electioneering is bought by the contesting candidates, and distributed freely for periods ranging from one week to four weeks. The first taste of liquor for most people is during elections."

Dr. JP said that the brazen practice of free liquor distribution is ruining the village society and economy and many youngsters are becoming addicts during elections.

He said that free distribution of liquor to voters during the period of electioneering is a corrupt electoral practice violating the code of conduct during elections. Dr. JP told the CEC that closure of licensed liquor shops for a limited period during elections served little purpose since the decision does not take cognizance of unauthorized outlets.

"We, therefore, urge you to direct the Andhra Pradesh Government to shut down all the unauthorized liquor outlets immediately. The District Election Offices and the election machinery directly under the control of the Election Commission may be entrusted with the closure of all unauthorized belt shops from now until the day of polling. This is in addition to closure of licensed liquor shops around polling time."

Pointing out that the election atmosphere in Andhra Pradesh is already highly charged with a number of parties determined to grab power at any cost, the Lok Satta President said he was concerned at liquor fueling the no-holds-barred election fights.

"We are not urging the Election Commission to do something out of the way and which is beyond its purview. All that we want is the enforcement of law both in letter and spirit to prevent the corrupt electoral practice of liquor distribution to voters as an inducement."

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