States Try to Restore Order After Migrants’ Protests, Liquor Shop Brawls

Liquor shops, closed for 40 days reopened allowing state governments to earn some much-needed tax revenue

State governments across India rushed to restore order after violence and chaos broke out when the country started relaxing it stringent virus lockdown, with migrant workers clashing with police in western part of the country and brawls erupting outside liquor shops in the national capital.

In Mumbai, local police said on Twitter that from Tuesday standalone shops would issue tokens to customers to avoid crowding around storefronts. It used the hashtag #MaintainSoberDistance. In Delhi the state government has imposed a 70% “corona fee” tax on the sale of all alcohol. It’s unclear so far whether the upheaval will continue or whether state governments will step in to enforce more curbs.

The country on Monday partially eased movement curbs across all but the worst infection-hit areas in an attempt to restart its stalled economy. Liquor shops, closed for 40 days under the strict stay-at-home orders, also reopened allowing state governments to earn some much-needed tax revenue.

Stocks of most liquor companies and breweries gained on the bourses, led by a 7.5% advance in GM Breweries Ltd., 6.6% rise in Associated Alcohols & Breweries Ltd., 5% in Globus Spirits Ltd. And 2.7% in Radico Khaitan Ltd.

“You can’t suddenly shut down a country of a billion-plus people without causing large-scale social and economic disruption, and you can’t expect the process of gradually opening it up again to be a seamless transition,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Washington-based Wilson Center. “New Delhi will inevitably confront new obstacles as it eases the lockdown.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the nationwide lockdown in nighttime television address on March 24, giving the country less than four hours of notice before the curbs came into effect. PM Modi has so far not commented on Monday’s events and calls to the prime minister’s office went unanswered.

The prolonged lockdown has hit millions of daily wage earners and migrant workers across the nation of 1.3 billion as jobs and income dried up overnight, leaving them penniless and stranded in the cities where they worked. With all forms of transport barred by the lockdown, many started a desperate journey back to their villages on foot and on bicycles.

Others have been stuck in the compounds of now-shuttered factories where anger has been brewing.

In Surat, an industrial and diamond processing hub in Gujarat, television footage showed police using tear gas to control crowds of angry workers, who pelted them with stones and demanded to be allowed to go home. Similar protests erupted in the city earlier in the lockdown.

The federal government announced it would start running special trains from May 1 to transport the stranded migrant workers. Local authorities will screen the passengers and only those found to be symptom-free would be allowed to travel, the home ministry said.

But some impoverished workers say they were made to pay a fare for their journeys, prompting Sonia Gandhi, the president of the opposition Congress Party, to announce her party would bear the cost for the migrants’ travels.

About 85% of the transport costs of the special trains was borne by Indian Railways, while the states must pay the remaining 15%, Lav Agarwal, a senior official of the health ministry said in New Delhi on Monday. All but two states were following the process, he said.

Alcohol Fights

In New Delhi reports emerged of scuffles outside liquor shops, where thousands of people had started lining up even before they opened. Several shops had to shut down as police used batons to breakup the milling crowds. There were news reports of similar scenes playing out in the states of Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh as well.

The state of Karnataka’s excise department released a statement estimating the value of the sale of liquor on the first day to be around 450 million rupees ($5.9 million), that included around 390,000 liters of beer and 850,000 liters of liquor, the News Minute reported.

“The challenge is to manage the disruptions and ensure they don’t spiral into chaos,” said Mr Kugelman. “And that will require confident decision making, clear messaging, effective coordination with the states, and above all trust and compliance from the public. That’s easier said than done in any context, and especially in a nation as populous and decentralized as India.”

India’s easing of restrictions is primarily aimed at reviving its economy, which could be heading for its first full-year contraction in more than four decades, as the world’s biggest lockdown has crippled business activity and put a lid on consumption. It has also resulted in widespread job losses and pay cuts.

The country had eased some restrictions on April 20 to allow farmers and some industries to resume operations in rural areas and in districts that were free of infections.

The number of new infections being reported in the country has not fallen despite the 40-day lockdown. India had reported just over 600 infections and 10 deaths on March 25 when the strict curbs came into effect. It had the biggest single-day spike on May 3, recording as many as 2,800 new cases, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. The country now has more than 46,437 infections, including more than 1,566 deaths.

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