With the elections to 186 village panchayats in Goa just around the corner, the code of conduct has been imposed across nearly all of Goa save for those areas falling under municipal jurisdiction. The code of conduct enforced by the State Election Commission is meant to ensure fair play between candidates to ensure that one set of candidates or any individual candidate does not take advantage of their position, power or proximity to the government to distort what should otherwise be a level playing field. The state authorities are expected to also check the flow of cash and liquor to ensure that the voters are not unduly influenced or intoxicated into voting for a particular candidate.
Over the last few days, several instances have been reported where the police have announced they have ‘raided’ certain establishments selling liquor or that liquor has been seized during a ‘raid’. There was little in the way of explanation over how exactly stocking alcohol, especially by legitimate establishments, was illegal -- by how much -- and what provisions of the code or the Excise Act were violated.
No doubt that there are notified instructions concerning the maximum amount of alcohol that can be stocked during the period the code of conduct is in force with the quantity decided by certain graded levels depending on the size of the establishment. However, more often than not, the list of compliances that ordinary bar licence holders, wholesalers, etc are expected to follow is so long and complicated that inadvertently they end up breaking some rule or clause or the other leaving them vulnerable to ‘raids’ by the police, the excise officials and other enforcers.
Things have reached such a point that several of the liquor sellers and other retailers have expressed the view that it would be better to keep their establishments shut for the entire length of the code of conduct than keep themselves open and suffer the loss and ignominy of having been raided -- not so much for trying to skew the level playing field of the elections but for having inadvertently broken some letter of the law.
Quite unsurprisingly, the various police announcements that they have seized illegal liquor have been silent on which section of the law has been broken and to what extent leaving even readers and commentators on social media bewildered that an ordinary retailer is being penalised for stocking alcohol. If a licensed retailer isn’t allowed to keep alcohol, then who is?
More often than not, the action by the authorities appears to be solely with the view of having something to show for the books rather than a sincere effort at ensuring a level playing field in the elections.
There is an urgent need for clarity on the issue as well as simplification of procedures and excise rules when it comes to enforcing the code of conduct in the state. More often than not the rules are being used to harass genuine businessmen and individual-run stores while the real culprits and those who distribute cash or alcohol usually go scot free as was evidenced during the assembly elections held earlier this year.