The curious business of online alcohol delivery in India

Alcohol e-commerce was considered unlikely before, but will soon be a reality

PTI31-03-2020_000245B Representational image | PTI, File

Technology has offered many solutions to post-pandemic life, from e-learning to staying in touch via video conferencing apps like Zoom. Now, we can add alcohol to the list.

Virtually a pipe dream of tipplers for the longest time in India, the lockdown and its ensuing debilitating impact on state finances (alcohol is a state subject and rules vary from place to place) has finally enabled what was considered impossible in Gandhian India till now—ordering your favourite poison in the comfort of your home, for delivery or pick-up at an allotted time, depending on the rule.

As Kerala’s excise minister T.P.Ramakrishnan announced on Wednesday evening the launch of the BevQ app which will allot time slots to customers to pick up their order from nearby vendors, bars and clubs, it was telecast live on almost all of the state’s news channels and was soon trending on the internet. Not surprising, since the issue of alcohol availability in the state with the highest per capita consumption in the country had reached almost crisis proportions since the lockdown. Over the past few days, the state, at least the non-teetotaller section of it, was agog with news about the app that was being developed for placing orders, and the supposed ‘delay’ in its approval by Google’s Play Store.

And it’s not just Kerala. Punjab was the first to innovate after the alcohol ban was relaxed at the start of the third phase of lockdown. The state’s Chief Minister Capt. Amarinder Singh perhaps reworked the dynamics of prohibition politics in India for the first time by directly calling on Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his video conference to relax the ‘unreasonable’ ban on liquor. As phase 3 of lockdown eased restrictions on alcohol sale, Singh pushed aside bureaucratic and political objections to set up an ordering and home delivery system right in early May.

Other states have also followed suit. While Chhattisgarh has developed a web portal for sale and delivery of alcohol in the state, states like Odisha roped in none other than food delivery aggregators Zomato and Swiggy to get the bottles across to customers.

Initially starting with Bhubaneswar and Rourkela on Tuesday, Swiggy plans to expand to cities like Cuttack by Thursday. “We have leveraged technology to automate the customer verification process and support the government with enabling safe deliveries,” said a Swiggy official. The company has partnered with a tech firm to develop AI face recognition for the mandatory age verification which compares a government ID alongside an uploaded selfie, aimed at ensuring that underage customers don’t get their hands on liquor.

While the ban on alcohol by the union government in late March (exercising the far-reaching powers it gained by invoking the national disaster management act) did not raise too many red flags, it slowly ballooned into a vexing and taxing issue for many states. While finances for many states have never been in exemplary shape, the lockdown struck a debilitating blow. Excise (duty on alcohol and ancillary revenue) and revenue (land and its administrative corollaries) are the primary income for most Indian states except the highly-industrialised ones like Maharashtra and Gujarat. Deprived of those, first Punjab, then the others, slowly started clamouring for a re-opening of the taps.

Delhi’s over-eager botch-up helped, inadvertently. Kejriwal government opened up liquor vends immediately after relaxations were announced, resulting in mayhem. Crowds queued up for kilometres in certain places, hustling and shoving each others throwing all social distancing norms to the wind. Even a price hike of 70 per cent, ostensibly a ‘corona cess’ failed to deter the massive crowds. Delhi government was soon forced to then go in for an online token system; though the site crashing as it could not take the load in the initial days added to the overall confusion.

While the state governments have been eager to point out that these ‘online models’ are all temporary arrangements considering the pandemic and that they are bids to ensure there is no crowding outside liquor vends, distillers and manufacturers are overjoyed at the opening up of a new business stream. “Alcohol e-commerce is an effective way to comply with physical distancing norms which is the new normal across the globe," Amar Sinha, chief operating officer of Radico Khaitan, tells THE WEEK.

“Online delivery reduces the chances of virus transmission significantly. It is also hassle-free and faster in these times,” he says.

It is not all smooth sailing, though. Traditional liquor retailers are a bit peeved at permissions given to the likes of Swiggy and Zomato, especially in places like Maharashtra and Odisha. According to news reports, this did prove a dampener initially. An email questionnaire sent by THE WEEK to Swiggy remained unanswered at the time of filing of this report.