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Age of confusion

Those who are Under 25 can drink alcohol but it can’t be sold to them, says a surprising new ruling by the Delhi High Court. In bars, no questions are asked

It is 2 in the afternoon as the sun is ablaze with all its power. The area is Hauz Khas Village, a place known to boast an abundance of bars and restaurants. Standing under the shade on a corner close to the Hauz Khas Fort is a group of four youngsters, who are assessing the various bars in sight.

Upon inquiry, a 21-year-old lady who reveals her age but not her name clarifies that they’re trying to figure out a bar which will serve them liquor. All the members of the group are college students studying in Delhi University.

“We usually come at this hour after bunking classes. Sometimes it’s a problem when they ask for our IDs but most bars here give away liquor if you’re dressed up good and look of a certain age,” says Sejal Shah, 20, a student.

On most days, the group hops from one bar to another in search of liquor, knowing that their age could be a problem for them to drink comfortably. But bar owners tend to bend rules so as not to shoo away business.

However, a surprising verdict by the Delhi High Court last week says that Section 23 of Delhi Excise Act, 2009 doesn’t prescribe the minimum age for drinking as 25.

The verdict was in response to a petition which sought to set aside and quash Section 23 of the Act. The petitioner thought – as most people think — that it prescribes 25 years as the legal age for drinking and buying alcohol in the Capital.

Chief Justice DN Patel Patel and C Hari Shankar ruled: “The age of drinking has nothing to do with the prohibition imposed by the Delhi government under the Excise Act. We see no reason to quash Section 23 of the Act which prohibits a licence to sell or deliver liquor to a person of less than 25 years of age.”

The Section states, “No person or licensed vendor or his employee or agent shall sell or deliver any liquor to any person apparently under the age of twenty-five years, whether for consumption by self or other.”

The bench not only refused to take the plea forward, but also clarified the notion about the drinking age in the Capital city —  a city which has over the past few years assumed that the age of drinking is 25 and above.

Restaurants and bars continue to impose restriction on underage people, and rightly so, but millennials have found ways to drink at these bars despite a prohibition in place.

“It’s not something very serious as they tend to make it. I have been going out and drinking after turning 21. It was my birthday party and everyone in my group wanted to drink in a bar. We drank before also but in each other’s homes. Some bars are strict with the drinking policy but most tend to give away liquor at face value or with some persuasion. We once paid extra also to drink comfortably,” said Chahat Sharma, 24, a marketing professional.

Ram, assistant manager at Auro Kitchen & Bar, a fine establishment in Hauz Khas Village, says that the bar has always followed the policy. “We always check ID of a person who seems to be younger than 25. If the person is not carrying an ID, then we refuse to give alcohol and food will be the only option left.”

While the Act talks about sale of liquor to a person under 25, one would assume that the stronghold of this policy would be the liquor shops in the city.

However, upon inquiry at a liquor shop in Connaught Place, it turns out that buying alcohol by a person under 25 is fairly easy. One just has to walk in and place the order. No checking of ID and no questions to inquire about it either.

At a liquor shop in Mayur Vihar in east Delhi also, teenagers too, were seen flocking to the basement liquor shop to buy beer and whatnot. Such is the rush at the liquor store, that it’s a major achievement to buy liquor of your choice. There seems no scope for inquiries about age.

“Who will ask for an ID in this rush? If we’ll start doing that then business will be lost. If they won’t get it here, they will find another outlet to buy,” said a person at the counter.

“To be honest, the drinking age being 25 has not really affected me. At a theka, as long as you look a certain age or 18+, you can easily buy alcohol. For them, it is not about who is drinking, but their sales,” said Nikita Kapoor, 23, a working professional.

She also adds, “Except for maybe important festivals, like New Year, I have never been asked to show my ID at a theka or a bar. I have seen schoolkids in uniform being served alcohol in shady bars of Delhi.

Kapoor also lists popular establishments like “Social, My Bar, Cafe Delhi Heights” as comfortable spaces for 18+ and those below 25 to drink.

“As a person who is below the age of 25, I personally don’t feel I had major issues in purchasing or consuming alcohol in Delhi. In popular places like Imperfecto or My Bar we were never asked for IDs,” said Vatsla Srivastava, a student.

She added, “Funnily enough, even in liquor stores in a posh area like Greater Kailash, I was never asked for any ID. I easily made the transaction.” She gives the example of her hometown Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, where “You are supposed to show the ID at every liquor shop. It’s pretty strict there, whereas in Delhi I never had to show my ID ever.”

Through a multi-city survey conducted by first-year students of St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai, it has come to light that 75% of youngsters in India consumed alcoholic drinks before turning 21.

The survey was conducted on 1,000 youngsters in the age-group 16-21 years, in cities including Mumbai, Pune, Delhi and Kolkata.

Youngsters in Delhi also flock to the neighbouring city Noida to consume liquor in bars as the legal age of drinking in Noida is 21.

A plea in 2018 in the Delhi High Court which also sought the legal drinking age of 25 to be lowered, claiming that 67% of the people in the age-group 18-25 years purchased alcohol from liquor vendors, but were never asked for an ID as proof of age.

With the Delhi High Court clearing the air over the legal age of drinking, the city is not bothered about the law but business. Clearly, youngsters have been served liquor without being asked for their IDs, and bars focus on orders rather than inquiries about age.