In the absence of a dedicated ministry, the restaurant industry continues to be plagued by labyrinthine laws that vary from place to place
The system is so unfairly stacked against restaurateurs that they are treated as potential criminals
THE QUESTION I am most often asked is: you seem so interested in food, so why haven’t you opened a restaurant of your own? There are three good answers to this question. The first is that people who write about things don’t necessarily know how to execute them to any great distinction. An art critic, no matter how distinguished, will never be the next Picasso. The foulmouthed Hollywood studio boss, Harry Cohn, used to say, “Critics are like eunuchs. They can tell you how to do it. But they can’t do it themselves.”
Photo: GETTY IMAGES 1The second reason is that I have no real interest in becoming a businessman and have no real flair for entrepreneurship. I’ve always chosen the life of a middle-class, salaried employee.
But there is a third and more powerful reason. Over the years, as I have interacted with the restaurant community, I have often wondered: why do these guys do it?
The tragedy of today’s India is that the system is so unfairly stacked against restaurateurs that they are treated as potential criminals by every government department that can make a fast buck out of them. The sad and sordid part of running a restaurant in India is the part that nobody talks about. The bribes to excise officials. The weekly hafta to the local police station. The demands for money from the municipal corporation and its officials. The greed and arbitrariness of the fire department. The laws that change suddenly. And the manner in which any branch of government has the legal right to shut down a restaurant and bankrupt its owner.
Let’s take a recent example; one that restaurateurs are only too familiar with. Recently, the Supreme Court passed a judgement stating that no liquor vendors or shops should be allowed within 500 metres of a national highway. By itself, this was not unreasonable. There were instances where truck drivers and the like would stop off at a local booze shop, tank up and then drive unsteadily into the night, endangering the lives of everyone on the road. And this followed up on an earlier recommendation dating back to 2004, though the limit then had been 200 metres.
As far as I know, the court’s primary concern was with shops that sold liquor to drivers. It was not with hotels or restaurants that were some distance from the highway but still fit into the generous 500 metre classification. Nevertheless, excise departments in some Indian states (such as Haryana) have interpreted this law to mean that any restaurant serving a drink anywhere near a highway is violating the law.
Does this mean that restaurants, five-star hotels and the like, that are located in an area where a national highway has now been built, should stop serving liquor?
Well, in theory, it does (no matter what the Supreme Court had intended; it’s the political/Babu interpretation that matters). But the reality is that the restaurants and hotels will stay in business. Some excise guys and politicos in various states, however, will get rich because they will
periodically threaten the restaurants by claiming that they are in violation of the law.
I have lost count of the numbers of restaurateurs across India who have told me about the kinds of bribes that have been demanded. But these guys are so terrified of speaking out that not one will let me use his name and most have already paid up. Hotel and restaurant associations have complained to the governments, saying that the Supreme Court’s intention was not to disrupt the restaurant business but merely to prevent the sale of liquor on highways.
Well, maybe, say the officials. Why don’t you guys go to the Supreme Court, file a new case, and then get this bench to clarify the judgement? Till that happens, however, we hold your future in the palms of our hands.
The liquor issue is a good example of the many dimensions of the problem. Because of our federal structure, there is no one body that restaurateurs have to deal with on liquor issues. Each state has its own alcohol policy and its own excise laws.
Within the states, the situation is complicated by a multiplicity of authorities. For instance, if you run restaurants within the national capital region, you will find that the laws change with every location. The New Delhi Municipal Corporation has different regulations from the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (they look after different parts of the city) and the rules in Gurgaon are completely different while Noida has its own set of regulations. So, each negotiation has to be conducted several times over with several different authorities. And several sets of officials usually leave these negotiations smiling happily while the restaurateurs are left impoverished and bitter.
At present, a restaurant needs anywhere from 32 to 36 licences to operate. Most of these licences are to be renewed every year. If at any stage in the renewal process, a restaurateur annoys an official then the restaurant might as well be closed down.
Yes, the restaurateur has legal recourse. If an excise violation is alleged (and the excise laws are drafted so that nearly everybody who serves liquor will be a violater of some sort), then the restaurateur can appeal within the excise department by going higher up the ladder. This process can take three or four years and only then will the courts bother to entertain the case. No restaurateur can survive if his restaurant is shut down for more than a year, so naturally, all restaurants settle and excise officials rarely have anything to complain about at the end of each ‘negotiation’.
The excise laws are a source of particular annoyance to restaurateurs. In the 21st century, government officials still retain the prohibition mindset and the rules are on their side. Anyone who serves liquor is treated as a potential menace to society. It can be tough to get a liquor licence and sometimes vast sums of money have to change hands before one is granted. Often, restaurateurs cannot understand why licences are being refused. In Delhi, for instance, virtually no liquor licences were issued after September. The closest restaurateurs got to an explanation was the claim that the AAP government was waiting for the Punjab campaign to end.
Why should an election in Punjab affect the prospects of somebody wanting to enjoy a drink in, say, Greater Kailash? No, I don’t understand it either. The restaurant industry does have bodies that are supposed to speak up on its behalf. The National Restaurant Association of India is vocal, but such is the culture in India that its members are frightened of the consequences that will inevitably follow if they speak up or take names. The body’s president, Riyaaz Amlani (of the Smokehouse Group) asks for relatively modest changes. Why can’t there be a ministry that handles the problems of the restaurant industry? After all, restaurants are a bigger employer than, say, IT, which gets so much government attention. Isn’t it possible to have a national policy so that restaurateurs do not have to understand the complexities of laws that change every 10 kilometres or so? Isn’t there something wrong with a system where a restaurant has to get 36 permissions just to sell a sandwich?
These are entirely reasonable demands. And the next time you go to Bangkok or Singapore and see how the restaurant scene is booming there, ask yourself this: would India be the same were it not for over-regulation and corruption? I think the answer is obvious. And now, you’ll understand why I’ll never want to open a restaurant of my own.