Liquor? No Problem
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Unlike the US during the inter-war years and in Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh presently, the Islamic republic has never imposed blanket prohibition upon its constituents. Non-Muslims can secure excise permits to buy alcohol which is even produced by the state-owned Murree Brewery and Quetta Distillery Ltd (QDL), both founded during the Raj. Otherwise impoverished, Pakistani Christians have made the best of the situation and form the backbone of the flourishing bootlegging business. And with everyone, from the man in the street to politicians and bureaucrats in high offices, thirsting for a drink, they command immense clout and patronage.

While the rich and the powerful are assured home delivery of everything from the local stuff to the best from India and the West, teenagers and the hoi polloi need to take a few risks. In Lahore, bootleggers hang out around the permit bars and excise outlets situated in three hotels. Having greased the palms of excise officials and policemen, they operate with relative ease. In Karachi, where the concentration of minorities and consequently the number of liquor vends is higher, most people can get it across the counter, no questions asked.

Islamabad is a veritable tippler's paradise thanks to the army of diplomats and a well entrenched bootlegging network. Armed with diplomatic immunity, the staff of the embassies of two Asia-Pacific countries in particular do brisk business and are believed to rake in cash, many times more than their salaries, by selling liquor behind their embassy buildings.

The price of contraband liquor in Pakistan is determined not only according to the origin and quality of the liquor, but also by the buyer's bargaining skills, as bootleggers seek to make a minimum profit of Rs 200 to Rs 300 per bottle. At controlled prices, permit holding bootleggers buy QDL whisky and vodka at Rs 200 per bottle, Murree malt and premium whiskies at Rs 300 and Rs 500, respectively, which is resold at a hefty mark-up. There is a further charge for home delivery, a service only extended to regular customers and political patrons. Scotch sells for between Rs 2,000 and Rs 4,000 per bottle.

In the intermediate range is Indian Made Foreign Liquor, smuggled across the long and porous Indo-Pak border, particularly in the Wagha border area via Kasur district. At Rs 800 to Rs 1,000 per bottle, a majority of regular drinkers in West Punjab religiously dance the 'giddha' to the tune of Indian Bagpiper whisky. While the bootlegger is the king in the cities, the rural masses employ traditional brewing skills to quench their thirst. Everywhere, from Chitral and Kalash in the north to Thatta in Sindh, potent brews are available by the pot-full in virtually every small village no matter how far it is from the main trunk road.

The only time Pakistanis ever had difficulty getting liquor was during Nawaz Sharif's term as prime minister as he came down with a heavy hand on bootlegging, which may well have added to his unpopularity. But happy days returned with Benazir Bhutto's second coming and the business is booming like never before.

In recent years, alcohol intake has increased in galloping proportions. The elite apart, drinking epitomises status and merriment for everyone, from the nouveau riche traders to college students. A party without drinks is unthought of and dinner is never served until midnight, after the guests have tanked up for the night. As more youth hit the bottle under peer pressure, it isn't uncommon to find novice and over indulgent drinkers throwing up by the roadside. Earlier this year, there was a spate of fatal accidents by drunken drivers resulting in four deaths in a single week.

Under the Hudood ordinance promulgated by the late General Zia-ul Haq, drinking is a non-bailable offence for Muslims, irrespective of whether they are Pakistani or not. While the law has done little to curb drinking, it has come as a handy tool in the hands of corrupt policemen to extort money. Mobile police vans often stalk hotels with permit bars and excise outlets in search of amateur buyers who are forced to pay their way out of the situation. Those caught with alcohol on their breath are instantly locked up without a case being registered in order to give the beleaguered tippler's friends and relatives time to show up with the money.

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