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The Rediff Interview/Anil Deshmukh
March 02, 2004
After former Maharashtra deputy chief minister Chhagan Bhujbal, no other Nationalist Congress Party minister has been in the news like Minister of State for Excise and Food and Drugs Administration Anil Deshmukh.
Deshmukh first banned gutkha in Maharashtra and saw that the decision was implemented strictly.
Now he has taken on the ubiquitous beer bars, dance bars, and discotheques. His new rule says those under 21 should not venture into avenues where liquor is served. If they are found there, the onus will be on the owners and their licences will be suspended immediately.
The minister shared his vision of "ideal youth" with Chief Correspondent Syed Firdaus Ashraf. Excerpts from the interview:
What made you go for the ban?
In the last one year I visited many permit rooms, pubs, and beer bars. I found that most of the people visiting those places were below 21 and consuming liquor. And I have been receiving lots of complaints from many parents whom I personally know, and non-governmental organisations. So I thought it was high time to take some tough decisions.
Can you elaborate on the nature of the complaints?
I cannot go into the details of each, but in short many parents were concerned about the fact that their children were consuming liquor.
But your government has been in power for four years. Why take this decision now?
In the last eight days I visited a lot of beer bars alone, without my security. I had been to a popular discotheque at Juhu and found that there were many teenagers who were dancing and drinking. Some of them were looking only 15 years old. Therefore I thought [that a] strict rule should be implemented.
But this decision has come at the time of elections...
The decision has got nothing to do with elections. You see, the reaction to this decision is positive in some quarters as well as negative in some. So you cannot say this decision will benefit my party in the elections.
Youngsters complain that if they can vote at the age of 18, why not drink?
Voting and [getting a] driving licence are different from consuming liquor.
But don't you think that at 18 people are mature enough?
In most countries drinking is permissible from the age of 21. So why not in our state too? And I think 18 years is too less an age to decide whether drinking is good.
There are social programmes in colleges and disco is a trend, so will this ban be applicable there?
Let me clarify. I have no objection to discos or parties. But serving drinks at discotheque for people below 21 is not allowed. I only said that at places where liquor is served owners should see that persons below 21 years don't enter their premises. I have never said anything about dancing. Let people below 21 years dance. I have no problems. This is being misreported. My only objection is to drinking.
In countries like the US, people are very independent by the time they are 18. They generally leave their parents' homes and are on their own...
We cannot compare our country to [the West]. But in many Western countries also drinking is permissible only from the age of 21. President George Bush's daughter was also caught because she was consuming liquor. She was below 21.
Why are you becoming a moral policeman? Shouldn't parents decide what is good for their children?
You see, the government has some social responsibility towards its citizens. Agreed, it is the job of parents to see what their children are doing, but we also have to see that our youth don't get misled. The job of the government is to enact rules and regulations that are good for society.
Earlier you banned gutkha. What is the reason? Why are you trying to reform society with these measures? Don't people understand what is good for them?
I told you that the government has a role to play in society's welfare. And you see, Maharashtra is the only state where implementation of the gutkha ban is working. When I became minister I found that gutkha was very popular among youths. I consulted many experts and found that it contains magnesium carbonate, which is very harmful. Mind you, I had to fight a very powerful gutkha lobby. And let me tell you, Vilasraoji [Deshmukh], my chief minister then, and all the Cabinet members supported me in my decision.
Is it true that NCP president Sharad Pawar is suffering from some oral disease after eating gutkha, and that he was instrumental in having it banned?
No. He had nothing to do with this decision.
Maharashtra's fiscal deficit is over Rs 90,000 crore. Don't you think such bans will result in loss of revenue for the government?
You see, revenue from gutkha was not that big. Agreed, liquor is a big revenue source, but we will try to find other ways to compensate for this loss. Moreover, I think this decision will not affect Maharashtra in a big way. I think the revenue from liquor can maximum fall by 10-15 per cent after this decision.
How will the bar owners find out who is 18 and who is not?
It is simple. They can recognise them by looks. I think bar owners must have that much judgement about the age of their customers.
What about punishment for those who are caught?
You see, we have put the onus on beer bar owners... it is their responsibility to not allow people below 21 inside their bars. If they are caught in beer bars, their [the bar owners'] licence can be cancelled.
But what about the teenagers who are caught drinking?
The police will take them to their parents and warn them not to go again. But we are further considering what kind of punishment should be given to them.
What response did you get from your family members and friends after this decision?
I got a good response. Parents are very happy that we have taken this decision. They have got good reason now to tell their children that they should avoid going to beer bars, otherwise they will land in trouble.
And what about the under-21s? What was their reaction?
Yes, some of them are unhappy, but many are happy too.
Bar owners have stated that those girls who are below 21 and working with them will take to prostitution if they are stopped from working.
This is just an excuse. They don't know how to react and therefore they are responding this way.
Some bar owners also say that you took the decision because they beat up some of your party workers in Worli.
This is not true. I didn't even know about the Worli incident. I came to know of it through newspapers.
They also said that the raids on them were illegal, as they did not take place after 1.30am.
No, it is not right to say that the police raids were illegal. The raids happened because the police wanted to see the permits of these beer bars.
Bar owners say they were wrongly slapped with obscenity charges. When the raids took place, only dancing was going on.
Policemen are competent enough to deal with such things. They know their job. They raided because they were doing something illegal.
What is your advice to the youngsters of Maharashtra? And what is your definition of an ideal youth?
I think an ideal youth should observe limits. At the age of 21 everyone is free. They can go to any place they want. I have no problems. But it is also the job of parents to see where their children are going even after 21. They should keep a tab on their activities.
When you were below 18, did you ever feel like going to beer bars?
[Laughs] At that time these things never existed. These things have started recently. And let me tell you that this beer bar and discotheque culture is only in Mumbai. It hardly exists outside Mumbai. And therefore there is a furore among the youngsters of Mumbai. But you go to Pune, Aurangabad and Nashik, and you will see that 80 per cent of those below 21 support my decision.
A youngster asked me if the minister wanted him to enjoy only after 40, when he has produced two kids.
[Laughs again] You can enjoy at 18, but that does not mean you go and drink in beer bars. I know this is the age of rebellion, but they have to be controlled a bit. You see, eight years ago there were not many beer bars in Mumbai, but today you see there are beer bars in every lane.
But you, too, must have done some mischief as a youngster.
[Laughs]... I cannot recall immediately, but I feel that there is a lot of generation gap now. Now the culture is different. We always used to admire patriots like Gandhiji and Subhash Chandra Bose.
Do you think today's youngsters are short on idealism?
I feel that idealism is gradually disappearing from today's youth. They are adapting to Western culture. That is why we have introduced national anthems in theatres... to put that patriotic feeling in them. Today they can hardly recall the names of our freedom fighters. They will remember Subhash Chandra Bose, Mahatma Gandhi or even Maulana Azad. But ask them who was Frontier Gandhi, and I am sure not even 5 per cent of them will recall the name of that great leader.