Asia-Pacific, Headlines

PAKISTAN: Brewery Wars Mock Prohibition

Karachi, Jun 17 1996 (IPS) - Liquor is banned in Islamic Pakistan, but that hasn’t stopped its consumption in high society or prevented the outbreak of a virtual brewery war to retain hold over lucrative markets.

Former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto slapped a prohibitory order on the sale of alcoholic beverages in 1977. The ‘Islamisation’ drive by his successor General Zia ul Haq to legitimise his military regime, reinforced the ban.

“All the restrictions did was drive drinking underground and create a bootlegging mafia,” says a doctor in Karachi, among the many who insists on three pegs of whiskey every night before dinner.

His bootlegger is a government clerk who happens to be Hindu, and keeps him well-supplied in ordinary circumstances. Since the Prohibition Order, only non-Muslims (three percent of Pakistan’s 140 million population) with a liquor permit can legally purchase alcohol in Pakistan.

Sociologists believe that prohibition has led to an increase in the culture of hard drinking as an act of defiance. Liquor consumption has been on the upswing in Pakistan.

Matters came to a head last autumn in a highly publicised court case. The 135-year-old Murree Brewery based in Rawalpindi in the Punjab province was stopped from selling beer, vodka, gin and whiskey in the Sindh province.

Until some months ago, it enjoyed a virtual monopoly over the manufacture and distribution of alcoholic products in Pakistan, along with the equally ancient Quetta Distillery in Balochistan province.

Murree Brewery used to supply 70 per cent of its alcoholic products to Sindh which, with its bon vivant feudal lords and the high-flying business class of the swinging city of Karachi, accounted for more than the collective demand in the other three provinces of the country. Murree was the sole supplier.

The ban effectively opened up a thirsty market for a new company called Beach Brewery, which had quietly been granted a license to operate in Sindh.

But, Beach Brewery is owned by Byram D. Avari, a former member of the National Assembly (MNA) and a close friend of Pakistan’s powerful first husband, Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s spouse. Allegations of connivance grew thick and furious.

By establishing Beach Brewery, Avari, a hotelier and a keen competitive yatchsman, was entering a profitable market: Murree Brewery’s gross profit for 1993 was a neat 5.33 million rupees (156,764 dollars approx.), 33 per cent more than the previous year.

This, despite the fact that since the 1977 Prohibition Act, the production of both the Quetta and Murree distilleries had been reduced to 20 per cent to cater only to the minorities.

Subsequently, production dropped following a ban on the export of alcoholic goods and even on non-alcoholic beer, on the advice of the Council of Islamic Ideology.

Today, 70 per cent of Pakistan’s total liquor sales are in Sindh, which has 65 retail liquor shops, compared to seven in the Punjab, three in the North West Frontier Province and three in Balochistan.

The unofficial ban on the sale of Murree Brewery’s alcoholic products in Sindh was estimated to cost the Sindh government a revenue loss of at least one million rupees (29,500 dollars approx.) a day.

Avari’s supporters contended that by breaking a monopoly, he was doing a good thing. Murree Brewery’s chief executive, Minoo Bhandara, also a former MNA, on the other hand, alleged discrimination and went to court for redressal.

In a front-page appeal printed in the country’s leading newspapers, he asked President Farooq Leghari for an impartial inquiry and demanded compensation.

Even after a court order in his favour, Bhandara complained his supplies were not being allowed into Sindh. He went to court again to prevent Beach Brewery from functioning in Karachi. “I am not against the establishment of another brewery, all I ask for is a level playing field,” he said.

In response to his plea, a Sindh High Court order stopped both breweries from selling their products in the province, much to the consternation of the city’s tipplers. They had to depend on the elusive and exorbitantly priced alcohol smuggled in from India or Dubai. It was only in December that the ban on both

breweries was lifted.

Sindh has always been more lax in implementing the Prohibition Act. Whereas even small towns in Sindh have liquor shops, there are none in several large Punjabi towns with substantial non-Muslim populations, like Gujranwala, Multan and Sialkot.

In Karachi anyone can walk into one of the city’s several liquor shops and buy, regardless of religious identification or a liquor permit. In the other provinces, prohibition is far more strictly enforced.

Although the more orthodox Islamic view forbids alcoholic consumption completely, this does nothing to deter Muslims in Pakistan from imbibing – and justifying it.

They point out that drinking is not forbidden by Islam, but simply not sanctioned, since believers have been forbidden to go to prayer in an unclean or intoxicated state. Thus, by default, they argue it is allowed ‘in moderation’.

Many, like a certain religious-minded but heavy drinking golfer in Lahore, make token gestures like giving up drinking only during the holy month of Ramzan as a way to “cleanse the system”.

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