LAHORE - As if a mere mention of liquor was a taboo in the Punjab legislature, Assembly’s ‘aw-shucks’ Speaker Rana Muhammad Iqbal was seen in a great hurry on Friday trying to shrug off the issue of bootlegging of liquor in the province.

Though it was not for the first time that liquor found a mention on the Punjab Assembly floor, but this time around, the speaker seemed virtually shuddered at the very thought of this drink.

It was during the question hour on excise and taxation department that the issue of bootlegging came up for discussion in the House. The lawmakers wanted to know as to how this otherwise prohibited liquid found its way to the Muslim community when its sale was strictly limited only to the non-Muslims.

They also had questions about the amount of money raised by the government through taxes on the sale of liquor and the criterion to award permits to the non-Muslims.

“Let me proceed further,” the speaker would tell every inquisitive MPA. “This is not an issue to be discussed at length,” Rana Iqbal would say with an aw-shucks smile on his face.

But the things went awry with more questions coming up in the House on the subject. Much to the embarrassment of the Muslim lawmakers, a minority MPA Tahir Khalil Sindhu declared that consumption of alcohol was also prohibited in Christianity and other religions. He questioned why the government had given permits to non-Muslims to purchase this commodity from Vend Shops located at five-star hotels. Sindhu also said that money raised from taxes on liquor was part of Punjab’s budget.

The House was also told that it was General Ziaul Haq who had imposed tax on sale of liquor in 1979.

Punjab Minister for Excise and Taxation Mian Mujtaba Shujaur who was ‘armed to the teeth’ with the relevant information also seemed much eager to answer the questions from his fellow lawmakers.

He told the House that Punjab Government levies Vend Fee on sale of liquor at hotels having L-2 licences. A sum of Rs 225 is charged on 750 ml bottle of liquor whereas it was Rs 32.5 on 500ml bottle, he further told.

Revealing some more facts and figures, the minister said that during 2012-13, the Punjab government collected Rs 964 million from across the province as Vend Fee while Rs 665.567 million were collected from Lahore alone. The government issued 12177 permits of liquor in Lahore from January 1, 2013 to December 31, 2013, and out of these 1226 were issued to new consumers, he informed the House.

Dr Wasim Akhtar of JI asked that around 90 per cent of non-Muslims sold out their quota of liquor to the Muslims and government was helpless to avert it.

The minister maintained that liquor was only sold to local and foreign non-Muslims under Punjab Prohibition (Enforcement of Hadd) Order, 1979. The bootlegging is forbidden and excise and taxation officers made frequent raids to check its resale. He further told that smuggled liquor also reached Pakistan, but it was job of the federal government to control its smuggling.

The debate would have prolonged further had the speaker not moved on to other questions. He concluded the debate by asking the minister to take stringent measures to stop illegal sale of liquor to the Muslims.