It is no secret that the Mumbai police are understaffed and ill-equipped. That’s what newspapers keep telling us and that’s what the police and government keep parroting each time there’s a terrorist attack or when they seek additional funds.
But don’t take my word for it. Last year, a report compiled by the Praja Foundation ascertained that 19% of police posts in this city of 13 million are vacant. We know this is not a situation restricted to Mumbai. Last August, the state government told the high court that 13% of police posts across Maharashtra were vacant. The court asked for these statistics after noting the slow progress in the investigation of the murder of a Pune builder even a year after the incident.
Now, if you were in charge of a short-staffed police force in a city that’s been bombed 10 times in 10 years what would your priority be? Would you step up beat patrolling to keep an eye and ear on the ground, to make the police more visible and to gather grassroots information on possible Indian and foreign bred terror networks? Or, would you raid private parties after alerting local and national media, round up unsuspecting partygoers, parade them in front of TV cameras and then, when unable to find any drugs on a majority of them, charge them with a ridiculous prohibition-era law that brands them criminals because they were adults who happened to be drinking without a piece of paper called the liquor permit?
So the toss up is: Ensure the safety of the citizens of Mumbai vs rounding up people who drink alcohol without a piece of paper. Tough choice, isn’t it? The Mumbai police seem to prefer the ‘nanny’ option as last week’s raid on a Juhu sundowner party made clear.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Like this newspaper’s edit emphasised on Friday, it is no one’s case that those who buy, sell or use drugs should not be punished. But many will agree that this liquor permit scam is increasingly being used to harass and criminalise otherwise law abiding people and establishments.
The Bombay Prohibition Act, 1949, makes it mandatory for those who purchase, drink or serve liquor to first buy a permit. This means you can be booked under this law if you sit at home with your dog and down the stuff without having added to the state’s coffers by buying a piece of paper that says you can do so. This law also makes it mandatory for you to have a permit to serve liquor if you throw a party at home. So, if you don’t get along with your neighbour, you know what to do before your next alcohol party. Like many other laws, this one too is arbitrarily enforced. When was the last time you read about a politician’s private party being raided and guests rounded up because none of them had drinking permits? And please, don’t tell me all such guests carry permits.
I’m reminded of the ban on dance bars a few years ago that was done ostensibly to protect bar girls from exploitation. However, the ban pushed the industry underground, leaving bar girls at the mercy of their handlers. As always, the only ones to benefit from these laws and bans are upholders of such laws who are taken ‘care’ of to look the other way.