The real picture of alcohol markets in Karachi

How illegal alcohol has given rise to a thriving black market in Pakistan.

By Javed Shafi

Ajeet is one of many liquor shop owners who find a way to ensure the merriment of their customers is not hampered by perceptions of faith. His name, like so many other things in this business, is forged.

“Pienge?” Capstan. Damn it. I think of black spots mushrooming on the right corner of my lung. “Ji. Thank you.” The room is friendly. There are pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses on the wall. A ’90s TV screen shows footage from the outside of the shop from four different angles. “Security.” Ajeet* says. “Security?” “Ji. You know the mazhabis. Sometimes also just sharabis… They attack us when they do not get what they want.” Karachi’s wine shops are apparently one of the few environments where alcoholics and mullahs share the same agenda.

It is a hot day. Several fans are running in the tiny shop and the gentleman sitting behind a small table at the back is busy keeping the papers from flying off the table. He uses various kinds of stones and glass objects as paperweights. There is a turtle, a glass ball with four bubbles in it, and something that appears to be a statue. Behind him, a fierce looking pump gun rifle rests on a stack of beer cartons. The wine store munshi is absorbed in filling out lists with numbers and names. His work seems boring, so I soon turn my attention to the front of the room. A metal grilled door and two tiny windows are crowded by peering heads and outstretched arms. Workers inside the shop are busy wrapping little bottles in old newspapers with a roll of the hand and then passing them on to the customers. The whisky pint seems to be the best selling item. No one buys the mint-flavored gin that is stacked under the main counter. Lychee, Strawberry, orange, and rose water flavours do not seem to fly off the shelves either. From time to time, someone asks for a beer. “Strongvali.” A shopkeeper opens the freezer next to me and the cool air crawls up my sweaty back. He pulls out a can of Murree, wraps it in paper and hands it over through the window.

Photo Courtesy: Javed Shafi

“Beer kam pite,” Ajeet answers to my enquiring glance. “Most people drink whisky. It is a small bottle and they can fit it into their pocket while driving.” Makes sense, when else would you attend to your drink.

Ajeet’s shop is located in the middle of a bustling bazaar. People pull carts down the small lane. Rickshaws sputter noisily and a beggar drags his legless body on a three-wheeled carriage along nearby shops, asking for a few rupees with an outstretched index finger. I can see the minaret of a mosque in the distance, and the azaan that just started behind me reveals another mosque somewhere near. I do not see signs of a temple or a church in the area. I know that there is a Hindu quarter nearby, confined and only accessible through a gate on each side. High walls shelter an orange flag that can only be seen from a distance. The population is small, maybe only a couple hundred households. Most Hindus living there are sweepers. Some sell toys at one of the hundreds of traffic signals or try to clean the windshields of cars. Being Dalits, the community is discriminated by Muslims due to their religion and by their Hindu kin due to their caste. Yet, they have their own wine shop.

History of prohibition in Pakistan

Muslims are not allowed to drink alcohol in Pakistan, and so about a hundred wine stores in Karachi only cater to the non-Muslim population, officially. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto announced prohibition half-heartedly in 1977 as a response to the Pakistan National Alliance, a right-wing religious opposition united only in their common rejection of Bhutto’s politics. According to some of Bhutto’s close allies who witnessed these turbulent days, Bhutto never really intended to push through with prohibition and planned to take his announcement back soon after his election. The rest is history. Allegations of rigging brought Bhutto down and he was never able to take his announcement back. Zia took over and his rule gave generations of Pakistanis a scapegoat to blame for everything that went wrong with the country: religious extremism, terrorism, the deplorable state of women’s rights, and the right to intoxication. Beginning with February 9, 1979, alcohol consumption found its way into the Pakistani Penal Code, where, under the Hadood ordinance, it reads:

“Whoever being an adult Muslim takes intoxicating liquor by mouth is guilty of drinking liable to hand and shall be punished with whipping numbering eighty stripes.” (President’s Order No. 4 of 1979)

Even though such sentences were rarely imposed after the strict rule of Zia, being caught with alcohol can pose significant problems for Pakistanis. Regardless of whether one is a Muslim or non-Muslim.

Anti-Narcotics Force (ANF) soldiers and members of the media watch as a steamroller crushes confiscated bottles of liquor. | Photo Courtesy: Reuters

“What if the police simply wait in front of your shop and pick up your customers when they go to their bike?” I ask. Ajeet smiles and hands another pint to a bodiless arm sticking through the window. “They don’t bother us, yaar. We give them money. They drink themselves! They are the number one thugs of Karachi.”

Any ban also opens doors for new opportunities. After the prohibition was put in place, many people took advantage of the new law. Embassy and consulate staff, for example, saw a chance to make money by selling their assigned monthly quota of liquor to the intoxication-hungry nation. A booming black market developed in the 1980s.

A retired bootlegger, a man in his mid-fifties, spoke nostalgically of the good old times when consulate employees used to sell their monthly quota to him, which he then traded for twice or thrice its value in the black market. Being a charming character, he was able to establish a web of ‘friends’ inside Karachi’s consulates, which helped to keep his business running smoothly. Today, he still speaks fondly of the German mission staff, who, according to him, had the biggest quota in Karachi. For this Christian man, the 1980s were the golden days and Zia’s Islamization put his three kids through some of Karachi’s better schools.

How does the alcohol-hungry population survive?

In recent decades, the influence of consulates and embassies on the black market has declined. Increasingly loose restrictions on alcohol consumption in Karachi and the establishment of new and more efficient smuggling routes are some of the major reasons. Consulates’ continuing involvement with black market alcohol, however, featured briefly in headlines last year, when a few attentive residents of Defence Housing Authority (DHA) exposed some of the North Korean mission staff selling booze in Defence. In an effort to protect its residents from this corrupting influence, the DHA wrote an indignant letter of protest, with which it inadvertently caused a diplomatic faux pas by directing it to the South Korean representatives, who were not amused.

Customs officials gather around a pile of narcotics and liquor bottles before destroying them on the outskirts of Karachi on January 26, 2015. | Photo Courtesy: Reuters

The prohibition meant an opportunity for non-Muslim groups in Pakistan. Many would jump into the business, either on a smaller level by selling their private drinking permits to friends and acquaintances, or on a larger scale by opening wine shops themselves. During the Democratic intermission after Zia’s rule, many shops sprang up around Sindh, supported largely by Hindu investors. However, it was not always non-Muslims who ran the show. Officially and on paper, yes, but there is another story hidden behind the small metal grilled windows of Sindh’s wine shops. Ajeet explains.

“See, often in Karachi, it is like this. Peter is a millionaire on paper, but in fact, he is the one who gets beaten with sandals if the shop is not properly cleaned. The Peters and Ajeets of this town do not even have the chance to get a sales permit. How should they? They have no political connections. Should they just walk up to the chief minister’s house and ring the bell?”

Legally, only the Chief Minister of Sindh has the authority to issue selling permits needed for opening wine shops. The way to a chief minister’s desk, however, is through the wallet of his subordinates. It is precisely such kinds of “political connections” which are hard to make by Pakistan’s minorities. In this way, an asymmetrical symbiosis is established between those having the right and those having the means to open a wine shop. Ajeet, who has been in the business for many years, mentions a few politicians who were able to obtain a sales permit through their connections and then simply started to run the shop in the name of their Hindu or Christian employees.

Counting the numbers of bottles and cans sold during the time I spent in Ajeet’s shop leads me to estimate that he sells upwards of 200 whisky bottles and a comparable number of beer cans per day. His shop seems to be doing good business and Ajeet smiles.

“How can you tell the difference between Muslims and non-Muslims?” I asked sheepishly. “We don’t. How would you? You can’t ask people to drop their pants!” “Well, but aren’t they supposed to show their NIC number or something to prove that they are non-Muslim?” “That is taken care of.” Ajeet points at Munshi Sahab who sits quietly at his desk, still struggling with the proper arrangement of his paperweights. An hour ago I had ignored the seemingly boring work done by the man sitting in the back of the shop. As it turns out, his mind-numbing task of filling in lists is a crucial step in an elaborate system of nazarandazi, the ancient art of ‘looking the other way’. For the sake of better explanation (and, I assume, also for effect), Ajeet abruptly steps away from his position at the sales counter, which is assumed by a teenage boy who starts wrapping bottles into the paper without a word. Ajeet takes a seat on the massive freezer, which occupies a disproportionately large part of the tiny room, and motions for me to sit next to him.

“You know I did some research myself once.” Ajeet grins. “Not for some paper or university, but only for myself, because I wanted to know. So I sat here and I noted down how many Hindus and Christians come and buy our stuff. If you work here for many years you know your customers well and I simply asked for the names of those who were new. I made a mark for each and what they bought and you know what I found out? In two days, one Christian and one Hindu came. One bought a pint and the other a nip.”

Ajeet extends his grin into a charming and very conspiratorial smile. He pulls my wrist and we sit down with Munshi Sahab in the back of the store, close to the pump gun that, if shot in this small space, would likely kill us all. At the front, Ajeet’s employees serve an unending stream of faces yelling their order into the room. “Pint! Nip! Bottle! Can! Astrong…!”

Seized alcohol bottles on display at Pakistan Maritime Security Agency headquarters in Karachi. | Photo Courtesy: Online

In Karachi, alcohol is ordered in quantities instead of brands. Murree with its impressive market share changed into “the thing,” one without any necessity of being named.

Ajeet offers me another Capstan. I take it and immediately regret my decision. We light them up and he goes on: “If I only sold to non-Muslims I would not be here. Nobody would be in this business. How many shops do you need for the non-Muslims of Karachi? One would be enough, no?” Ajeet gives me a stern look and blows out smoke.

Before the introduction of Computerized National Identity Cards or CNIC, wine shops used to forge consumer permits, which were issued by the Excise Department for non-Muslims. In those days, shops hired an “agent,” who would supply them with permits, so that the store would be able to justify its massive sales. Such agents struck a deal with local photographers, who provided them with portrait pictures for a small fee. These pictures were carefully attached to permits issued in the names of random minority citizens. (How curious it would be to find old pictures of loved ones, who, at least on the Excise Department’s records, had turned into Hindus with a significant drinking problem). In 2006, such kinds of permits were stopped and CNIC numbers started to fill Munshi Sahab’s hisab-kitab. This made selling to Muslim customers even easier, as the middleman became unnecessary and the wine shop staff simply started collecting non-Muslims’ CNIC numbers from friends, photocopy shops, or community leaders. Today, the PR3 forms, which must be handed over to the Excise Department every month, contain lists of CNIC numbers that appear again and again in an astonishingly similar sequence.

“Whenever we sell a pint, a beer or whatever, we write the purchase on this list. We mainly have names of Hindus. Some of them do not even live here. Some are already dead, but they keep buying from our shop!” Ajeet extends a low five, which is unenthusiastically met by Munshi Sahab. “What about the people to whom you show the lists?” I ask. Taking another puff Ajeet comes closer. Smoking our Capstans and leaning over this massive book of conspiracy briefly gives me the feeling that Ajeet is about to let me in on an upcoming heist. The gun next to me does not help to dispel the mafiaesque air.

What about the police?

“We simply bribe them. From the lowest Excise Department inspector to the highest officer, from the lowest ranks in the police to the highest.” He goes on, “We give three to four lakhs every month. Kitne dete he?”

I always found such rhetorical questions at the end of sentences a bit silly and I make it a point not to answer them, even if people keep staring at me as if I were a dog that has just been shown an amazing card trick. At this moment, however, Ajeet’s rhetorical device somehow melts into my sub-consciousness and I answer: “Three to four lakhs!”

Photo Courtesy: AFP

Spending some time in the wine shop, it is obvious no one shows any identification cards. People buy anonymously and leave. Those who do not want to be seen near the shop get home delivery, a special service to avoid the rush. Some shop owners claim that 20–30% of their daily sales come from home delivery, depending of course, on the area. DHA seems to have an outstanding home delivery quota. This is much to the advantage of a few youngsters who buy from wine shops and then sell for fifty or a hundred rupees more, directly at people’s doorstep. These activities require a blind eye from the side of the police, who are paid to let customers be and who do not control the home delivery boys on their tours. Such services, however, don’t come for free and so the police collect money every week. Ajeet knows the numbers by heart.

“The sepoys take Rs30, the sub-inspector Rs500, the assistant sub-inspector between Rs300 and 400, a station house officer even gets between Rs10,000 and Rs15,000 per week. The deputy superintendent earns an additional Rs12,000, his assistant another Rs1,000. Everyone in their office gets Rs500…” Ajeet looks meticulously at my writing and corrects me from time to time when I get the amounts wrong. He goes on.

“The senior superintendent police only collects on a monthly basis and takes a humble Rs5,000. His assistant takes Rs2,000 per month. This modesty has to do with the fact that SSPs have more shops to oversee and so collect more money. If you are interested then sit down and add up the number of shops in the five districts of Karachi. I am sure they get quite some cash.”

These payments are put down so that the police do not harass customers in front of the stores. Such a system is not only found in Karachi, but all over Sindh and also in Balochistan, where the police get a share of the wine shop’s profit in return for not hanging around its premises. Karachi is separated into different “wine shop turfs”, which correspond to the map of the police thanas in the city. Inside such areas, buyers and delivery boys are not bothered. If a shop wants to extend its delivery range, it first has to talk to the police station in the area.

While the police assure a smooth buying experience for the wine shops’ customers, the Excise and Taxation Department assures that “officially” alcohol is only sold to non-Muslims. Excise taxation officers get a respectable Rs40,000 a month from Ajeet so that they look the other way if there are any irregularities? or, in fact, extreme regularities ? in the list. Assistant excise taxation officers take another Rs20,000 per month and the excise inspectors, whose job it is to visit the stores to check the accuracy of Munshi Sahab’s list, take Rs500 every time they do not show up.

In this way, a parallel market is established in which many actors are paid to keep up an elaborate façade in order to pay lip service to a legal regime that was built to appease the right wing politics of the seventies. The benefit of this system today is unclear, as all those involved mainly help to keep up petty corruption. Intrigued by Ajeet’s frankness about his job I ask: “Why are you telling me all of this? Could this not actually be harmful to the business?” Ajeet smiles. “What will you do with it? Nobody can break this system. Maybe for one or two days, people will talk about your article, but then they forget and all will be as it was before. It would take more to change all of this.”


This article was originally published on Tribune Labs.

Photo Courtesy: Unsplash