Alcohol is widely prohibited for Muslims in Pakistan, but that does not prevent a black market from securing a supply of illicit alcohol. As in many countries around the world, there has been an overall increase in alcohol consumption in Pakistan during the coronavirus pandemic.
Not all Muslims follow the rules, and well-healed drinkers can afford to buy branded alcohol from the market at a high price. Those with lower incomes often turn to the low-cost moonlight.
As the coronavirus pandemic has strained supplies, legal and black market alcohol in Pakistan have become much more expensive.
Alcohol consumption has been controlled in Pakistan since 1977, when the populist government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto enacted prohibitive laws, with isolated exemptions for bars and clubs.
The ban was tightened in 1979 under the Islamic rule of General Zia-ul-Haq, who declared alcohol consumption “un-Islamic” and decreed severe penalties for the sale of alcohol to Muslims. However, the so-called “wine shops” are allowed to be owned and operated in some areas by non-Muslims who pay a heavy tax.
The wine merchants of Pakistan’s “gray zone”
Rahul is a Hindu who works in a wine shop in Pakistan’s most populous city, Karachi. Wine merchants are legal in Sindh province, southern Pakistan, for non-Muslim customers. However, Rahul said he delivers alcohol to anyone who pays.
“Muslims, Hindus, Christians, a lot of people drink. It’s none of my business what their religion is,” Rahul told DW, adding that he had to be careful.
“We have to be careful in this area because people can try to get you in trouble,” he said.
Rahul said he could earn up to 280 euros each month at the wine store, including tips from loyal customers for deliveries, a much better salary than his old job as a cotton worker.
Wine merchants like Rahul’s are unique to Sindh Province and not found in the rest of Pakistan. In other parts of the country, Muslim drinkers buy alcohol on the black market.
Alcohol purchased from legal Sindh wine merchants has a somewhat controlled price. However, black market alcohol prices have increased in the rest of Pakistan during the pandemic.
Wine merchants are not allowed to officially sell alcohol to Muslims
More drinkers paying higher prices
Omer, a 37-year-old singer in Islamabad, said more people are drinking during the pandemic, despite soaring prices.
“Since last year, I have gone from being a social drinker to drinking mostly on my own and every day because I go out less, but alcohol also helps me cope with anxiety,” said Omer to DW, adding that drinking is still taboo, and many Pakistanis who drink feel alienated.
Omer said local beer and liquor prices tripled during the 2020 lockdown and are still currently selling for double the old price. A bottle of local vodka sold for € 8 now goes to € 19.
Hira, a 38-year-old journalist, told DW that she bought a bottle of “Black Label” whiskey for € 70, and that it was watered down. Others she knows also ended up with imported brand name alcohol that had been diluted.
“You are wasting so much money because you cannot trust the bottles imported from the black market,” she said, adding that she now preferred to drink locally produced Murree Brewery beer.
“It’s good enough, but we’re sick of not having a choice,” she said.
Murree Brewery workers pack bottles of gin
Breweries remain discreet
Isphanyar M. Bhandara, CEO of Pakistani brewery Murree, told DW that when the brewery was closed last year for several weeks between March and April, all production and distribution was halted.
During those two months, Bhandara said sales have stalled and they have to waste large amounts of production equipment like wheat.
“COVID has hit at the height of our drink season … so we only made 50% of our usual profits, but it’s still better than many other companies that unfortunately went bankrupt,” he said. declared. In the first months of 2021, however, sales increased.
Yet Bhandara said his brewery faces social stigma in Pakistan and Murree is keeping a low profile and not advertising. Founded in 1860 to meet the demands of thirsty British staff at a resort town in Punjab, Murree is the oldest and largest producer of alcoholic beverages in Pakistan.
At the height of the pandemic last year, the brewery was able to improve its public image somewhat by producing 10,000 gallons of ethanol-based hand sanitizer.