Chaos outside liquor stores as India eases virus lockdown

NEW DELHI (AFP): Police used batons on Monday to beat back thirsty Indians jostling to buy alcohol for the first time in 40 days as the government eased further the world’s biggest coronavirus lockdown.

The government credits its harsh shutdown of almost all activity since in late March with keeping the tally of cases to a relatively modest 42,500 with around 1,400 deaths.

But it has also caused misery for millions of workers in India’s vast informal sector left suddenly jobless and dealt a major blow to Asia’s third-biggest economy.

Adding to some relaxations for industry and agriculture last month, on Monday offices could operate with one-third capacity as well as some cars and motorbikes and certain shops.

Officials had painstakingly drawn chalk circles for buyers of booze to stand in but the social distancing efforts were thwarted as people gathered from early morning.

“We have been in solitude for over a month,” Asit Banerjee, 55, told AFP as he queued in Kolkata, where — as in Delhi and elsewhere — police used “lathi” batons to control the crowds.

“Alcohol will energise us to maintain social distancing during the pandemic,” he said.

Elsewhere such as in Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh state police closed down the shops soon after they opened as long queues of men in face masks snaked around the block.

“One of the shops had opened in the morning but clashes broke out as a lot of crowd had gathered,” a police officer in Ghaziabad told AFP

But hundreds continue to loiter in neighbouring streets and bylanes in the hope they would be reopened.

“It’s not like I have anything to do at home,” Deepak Kumar, 30, told AFP as he waited patiently across the street from one outlet in the national capital New Delhi.

One lucky customer who managed to buy some wine, 25-year-old Sagar, said he went to a store in Delhi at 7.30 am and was delighted to discover it had opened early.

“There were about 20 to 25 people in the morning and the shop was open for about two hours,” he told AFP.

“People in rows of five were being allowed in. Now they’ve shut it.”

In some other states, including Maharashtra, certain liquor stores remained shut amid confusion over which outlets were permitted to open. In others such as in Assam they opened several days earlier.

Although illegal in some states like teetotaller Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Gujarat, alcohol consumption has risen strongly in recent years as the country’s middle class has grown.

This is particularly true of spirits, with the country of 1.3 billion people reportedly guzzling almost half the world’s whisky, although much of it in reality is rum according to purists.