After a debate in the legislative assembly, the Nongthombam Biren Singh government in Manipur announced, on 20 September, that it would partially lift the liquor prohibition imposed on the state in 1991—when widespread alcoholism and drug addiction accompanied a raging insurgency. Foreign tourists are currently allowed to purchase alcohol with a permit and the restrictions of the Manipur Liquor Prohibition Act do not apply to defence personnel and communities whose traditional occupation is brewing. The government’s decision will permit the sale and consumption of alcohol in all district headquarters, tourist destinations and hotels with more than twenty beds. The export of locally brewed liquor to other states will also be allowed under certain conditions. The cabinet expects that this will generate an annual revenue of over Rs 600 crore and mitigate the health hazards of illicit liquor. During the 1980s, the state used to earn around Rs 40 crore a year from 65 liquor shops and three warehouses.
Despite three decades of prohibition, the 2019–20 National Family Health Survey ranked Manipur fifth in terms of alcohol consumption. The free flow of liquor has been facilitated by a burgeoning network of roadside kiosks and illegal bars, which are expected to be regularised under the new regime. In August, I met the owner of possibly the swankiest illegal bar in Imphal. He opened the bar two years ago with an initial investment of about Rs 30 lakh, and has been an open supplier of alcohol in this supposedly dry state.
Perhaps anticipating the government’s decision, the bar owner recently relocated to a three-storey building in the centre of the state capital, spending almost Rs 1 crore. From the outside, the façade was that of an ordinary cafe, with soft country music playing inside. The smell of fresh paint lingered. As I climbed the stairs to the second floor, the ambience completely transformed, with dim blue lights and loud rock music. The bar counter reflected the rows of glasses overhead and the industrial decor of generous nude bulb lighting. The view outside was of the few emerging elite buildings, such as Imphal’s only four-star hotel. The staff was young, polite and efficient. Their monthly salaries ranged from nine thousand to twenty-five thousand rupees. Six of them were using the job to pay for college, while ten others were supporting their siblings’ education. “It is difficult to find an evening-shift job in town, and I was almost dropping out from college,” one server told me.