According to recent reports, Maharashtra, India has seen a sharp drop in alcohol use during COVID-19. But trouble is brewing as alcohol availability seems to be growing.

As Movendi International previously reported, India implemented a brief alcohol sales ban from April to May. The ban was lifted along with other curfew relaxations on May 4th. But for instance in Mumbai – a COVID-19 hotspot – retail sale of alcohol still remains banned.

Maharashtra is a state in the western peninsular region India. The state is the second-most populous state, home to the Marathi people and third-largest state by area in India.

Statistics compiled by Maharashtra State Excise Department show that between April and June 2020, compared to the same time period in 2019,

  1. Overall alcohol consumption declined by 59%, and
  2. Beer consumption dropped by 72%.

The reduced availability of alcohol due to the early alcohol ban and the closure of restaurants, hotels and permit rooms has led to this decline in alcohol consumption in India. According to Maharashtra’s Excise Commissioner Kantilal Umap these places account for 50% of beer consumption, 30% of liquor and 40% of country liquor sales.

The reduced alcohol consumption in the state of Maharashtra is good news for India as a whole. The country is heavily burdened by alcohol harm, which has been further exacerbated by the current pandemic.

Many other state governments lifted their alcohol sales bans for reasons of tax revenue generation from alcohol retail – in order to raise domestic resources for public health. Clearly, the coronavirus crisis has brought into sharp focus this policy incoherence regarding: on the one hand alcohol consumption and harm are a major concern and on the other hand many Indian states are dependent on alcohol tax revenue for basic functioning. This dependence is the reason why the necessity of a public health approach to alcohol taxation is being ignored.

Emerging concerns of increased availability

Despite the positive trends in declining alcohol consumption in Maharashtra, all news is not good news. The state government allowed for home delivery of alcohol (for Indian Made Foreign Liquor [IMFL] and beer) yielding to alcohol industry pressure. The Big Alcohol lobby is claiming that this would lower overcrowding at retail stores and help maintain physical distancing. For communities affected by pervasive alcohol harm and public health experts, it is concerning that the alcohol industry is exploiting the COVID-19 crisis to undermine alcohol policy solutions – especially considering that alcohol increases the risk of COVID-19 infections.

Possibly as a result of the weakening of alcohol policy measures and the ensuing increase in alcohol availability through home delivery, sales of alcoholic spirits are regaining rapidly in Maharashtra. For May 2020, sales were down 35% as compared to 2019, but this gap had narrowed to 8% in end-June.

In some Maharashtra districts such as Nandurbar, Ahmednagar, Kolhapur, Satara, Ratnagiri, Raigad, and Nashik, the IMFL sales in June had surpassed 2019 levels.

While home delivery of country liquor is still banned, the sales of this type of alcohol are also regaining. Sales were down by 47% in May but narrowed to 15% by end June, compared to 2019 figures.

Another worrying trend is that alcohol use permits have increased nine-fold compared to the entire 2019-2020 period. Maharashtra is an alcohol prohibition state, which means people need to acquire a permit to consume alcohol. An individual must be 25 years of age to consume liquor (strong beer, whisky, vodka, gin and rum) and 21 years to consume “mild beer”. As home delivery of alcohol can only be made to permit holders, there has been a surge in permits issued.

According to state Excise Department data, since May 4, when retail liquor sales resumed this financial year till the end of June, Maharashtra saw 143,656 people apply for a liquor permit. Of these, 138,497 applications got approved and another 663 are pending. In comparison, only 15,488 had obtained liquor permits in 2019-20.