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Friday, May 17, 2024

Sindh’s major problem: Booming alcohol sales?

In Sindh, over 57% of children are stunted, 40 percent suffer from malnutrition, 6 million children are out of school. This despite the fact that Article 38 of the 1973 Constitution of Pakistan, states that ‘the state shall provide basic necessities of life, such as food, clothing, housing, education and medical relief’.

The province suffers from bad to non-existent infrastructure, not enough jobs for those who want them and flooding and famines. Yet the last couple of months the most important issue in Sindh for the highest courts in the land, has become the closing down of liquor shops.

Hundreds die each year in Pakistan from consuming alcohol that is home brewed and toxic. Christmas 2016, 42 people died one day because of such consumption.

Legal breweries exist in Pakistan, who are allowed to sell alcohol to the minorities and foreigners.  They are tightly regulated and monitored by government agencies. Consumption is banned for Muslims in Pakistan.

However, while wealthy Pakistanis can afford to buy alcohol on the black market at heavily inflated prices, the poor have to resort to home made brews that can contain methanol, commonly used in anti-freeze and fuel. The toxic brew that killed over 42 people in December was made using 20 litres of aftershave.

Background to ban in Sindh

Sindh High Court in October 2016, ordered the closure of Liquor Shops in Sindh citing the Hudood Ordinance of 1979. The SHC ordered authorities concerned to cancel licenses of all liquor shops operating in the province and issue fresh licenses after detailed scrutiny.

SHC bench observed at the time that only non-Muslims could be provided liquor for consumption, that too only for religious ceremonies after they had filed a request in advance along with supporting evidence from their religious bodies.

SHC Chief Justice Sajjad Ali Shah observed that there was no provision under Section 17 of the Prohibition (Enforcement of Hadd) Order, 1979 which allowed granting of general licences to liquor shops to sell alcoholic beverages throughout the year.

Petition in Supreme Court to suspend SHC decision

Ten shop owners signed the petition against the SHC’s order of March 2, with the help of Asma Jahangir. The owners also sent a plea requesting the SHC to suspend the decision until the final verdict is taken by the SC. They further explained that this decision of the SHC was putting the livelihood of shopkeepers at risk and that their families might have to pay the price.

24,000 citizens were reportedly working in the Alcohol business.

SHC’s decision has not only affected the shopkeepers but the families who are depending upon their earnings.

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The petition outlined that, “The petitioners are not acting in any illegal manner. They were not given any opportunity to be heard or to make alternate business plans for themselves or their employees, and as such have been condemned unheard.”

The petition further highlighted that the SHC had violated the article 10-A of the constitution which guards rights of the guilty in this case. The petitioners were unfortunately deprived of the opportunity to defend themselves in court and the legitimate process was completely eliminated as well.

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The petition further explained that, “The petitioners are regular taxpayers and law-abiding citizens engaged in a lawful trade. There has never been a complaint against the petitioners before the excise or police authorities about any violation of terms of the licences granted to them under Articles 17 and 18 of the Prohibition (Enforcement of Hadd) Order 1979 or otherwise of the petitioners being engaged in any illegal sales of alcohol,”

The petition also highlighted that Alcohol was being sold in not just Sindh but in other parts of the country as well, including the Capital, Islamabad. According to the petitioners, the law gives them the fundamental right of earning a livelihood.

The SHC has taken the decision without performing adequate investigation of the liquor-seller records. The defendants have been declared as guilty based solely on personal belief and opinion regarding their violation of the 1979 Hudood law.

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The petition revealed that, “The interim impugned order is exceptional as it deprives the petitioners of their livelihoods based on a writ petition which is frivolous, repetitive and based on facts that are disputed by all parties.” 

Earlier with the order passed on March 2, the Sindh government was given a timeframe of 30 days to come up with a practical solution to the problem. The government was also asked to collaborate with all stakeholders including minority groups and shopkeepers.

The court further directed that the excise and taxation department must close down all shops and a proper record of liquor sales must be developed. The court urged that the sales records should not be made publicly available.