A probe, which began following a routine inquiry by Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis on how four retail liquor shops sprung up in his Assembly constituency, has now revealed that between 2010 and 2016, several private dealers were issued fresh retail liquor permits in the guise of renewal of existing licences. Officially, there has been a freeze since 1974 on issuance of new liquor permits in Maharashtra.
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Fadnavis first learnt about the new liquor stores in the Nagpur south-west constituency in September 2015. When his office inquired into how these came up, it was informed that these were among the 21 licences which had been relocated to Nagpur from other districts under revision orders issued during Cabinet Minister for Excise Ganesh Naik’s tenure in the Congress-NCP government.
Further complaints of irregularities and graft in the process prompted the Fadnavis-led Home Department to stay the relocation of these licences on September 24. But a month later, the High Court overturned this stay, which was later even upheld by the Supreme Court on July 7, 2016, following which the Chief Minister ordered the detailed probe.
While the Fadnavis government has been in office since October 31, 2014, the Congress-NCP regime was in power previously. The government’s probe found that all licence approvals during the period were issued under the minister’s discretionary powers after district-level officials had rejected all these applications at their level on the ground of ineligibility, government sources here said.
In all, between 2010 and 2016, 202 liquor licences (165 country liquor, 37 foreign liquor) were shown as renewed. Records show that Naik issued the bulk of these approvals (194 out of 202). But sources confirmed that BJP’s serving Minister of State, Dilip Kamble, who was the MoS for Excise from October 31, 2014 to July 7, 2016, had issued the remaining eight orders using the same discretionary power. Section 138 of the Maharashtra Liquor Prohibition Act, 1949, gives the minister powers to revise, modify, annul or reverse any proceeding relating to grant or refusal of a licence.
CM Fadnavis told The Indian Express, “Some irregularities were noticed. So, I had asked (Excise Commissioner) V Radha to probe the matter.” He said the probe report is yet to reach him.
The most alarming finding in the probe, the report of which has been accessed by The Indian Express, was the existence of several cases where renewal orders were issued for non-existing licences. “There were also cases where similar approvals were issued for licences that had already been surrendered. This translated into flouting of the embargo on new licences and also caused enormous revenue loss to the exchequer,” said a source.
The state excise department has a list of 21 relevant documents which are required in renewal cases. Indicating that verification of records was not done before issuing the orders, the inquiry found 24 “most suspicious” cases where approvals were issued when no mandatory support document was present. There were 74 other instances when approvals were granted on the basis of just one or two support documents. The inquiry also found some cases where unsigned government letters was used as documentary evidence.
A vast number of cases involved licences which were dormant for several years. “Renewal is an annual process for functional permits. It cannot be applied to dormant licences. They are to be separately treated as cases of re-validation,” the report states. The inquiry also found that in most cases interest for the period of non-operation was not collected. This alone cost the exchequer Rs 52 crore.
Procedures for admission of revision appeals before the minister weren’t followed at all. “Such applications must contain recommendations of the District Collector and the Excise Commissioner and should have been routed through them. But this wasn’t done at all,” the report adds. Norms for licence transfer to legal heirs and relocation of the permit were also not followed in several cases, it says.
Kamble said, “I did no wrong. Due process was followed before issuance of the orders during my tenure.” Naik, meanwhile, said “The orders I gave were based on evidences put before me by the department staff and applicants.”