PUNJAB PUNCH: Excise raids making restaurant owners anxious in Lahore


LAHORE: Recent raids over alleged illegal consumption of alcohol at two of Lahore’s most renowned restaurants, Café Aylanto and Gai’a, have made owners of other restaurants anxious because they fear they might be next, while on the other hand, a district administration official has revealed that they, on the instructions of Lahore commissioner, have prepared a list of restaurants who are serving liquor.

On September 7, the Excise department conducted a raid at Café Aylanto’s MM Alam Road branch and after discovering bottles of premium liquor, sealed the restaurant. Later, the management reached an agreement with the district administration, allowing them to reopen the restaurant. On September 28, the department conducted another raid at Gai’a restaurant in the upscale Phase 5 area of Defence Housing Authority (DHA) but they could not find anything and left without any further action.

Interestingly, one thing common between both raids was the presence of Model Town Assistant Commissioner (AC) Zeeshan Ranjha, who appears to have acted beyond his domain by raiding a restaurant out of his jurisdiction while it was the domain of Cantonment AC who was also present during the raid.

According to a source in district administration, the city commissioner is behind these raids because of some personal vendetta he is harbouring against these restaurants. “Aylanto management did not entertain the commissioner and he wanted to teach them a lesson by defaming them,” the source said, adding that other raids are now being conducted to present such activities as a routine matter.

This has perturbed restaurant owners. A restaurant owner, who asked to remain anonymous over fear of retaliation, said that in hospitality business one is expected to meet the demands of customers, who sometimes include foreigners who ask for liquor. “Sometimes we arrange liquor for them and sometimes they bring their own drinks. This has been the norm for a long time but we have not faced such ruthless behaviour at the hands of authorities. We allow the food authority to check the quality of our food but we cannot allow officers to come and sniff our guests because it is not only insulting to their self-respect but is harmful for our business,” he said.

“I fear that people will start visiting restaurants out of fear of officers who think it is their right to misbehave with customers. I believe the district administration is trying to blackmail the managements of restaurants because they want something in return. Their tactics are well-known. Their high-ups avoid direct bribes and use their authority to force us to entertain their ‘special guests’ for free while their lower staff occasionally visits to ask for money,” he added.

With visible signs of stress, the restaurant owner said that the district administration should focus on real issues and avoid harassing people. “They should focus on controlling the dengue outbreak, removing encroachments, sealing illegal petrol pumps, reforming the waste management infrastructure and resolving water issues but they are diverting the public’s attention from these issues by raiding restaurants for liquor,” he added.

“Why are they not raiding schools where drugs are being sold and sub-standard food is being served to children? Why are they not keeping a check on shopkeepers who are selling everyday items at high rates illegally? Why are they not checking the markets where fake items are being sold openly? Why are they not making any efforts to retrieve government land from land grabbers?” he asked.

Meanwhile, an ET&NC official, while speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that the department’s raid at Gai’a was only meant to intimidate the owner. “The district administration officials involved in the raid were clearly working out of their domain,” the official said.

The official also said that ET&NC Director General (DG) Zahid Hussain was asked by Lahore commissioner to send a team to raid the restaurant and he assembled a flawed team in a hurry but before the Excise team could reach the venue, the district administration team had already conducted a raid and had harassed the people.

When approached, ET&NC Director Rizwan Sherwani, who had led the team for the raid, said, “We acted on behalf of the district administration upon being informed that liquor was being served illegally at the restaurant. ET&NC DG was informed by the district administration and thus we were assigned this task.”

“Nothing was recovered from the restaurant and the management told us that people bring their own drinks which are served by the waiters. However, on the day of the raid, no liquor was found in the restaurant. We then issued them a warning saying that although we do not mean to harass anyone, consumption of liquor at public restaurants is a violation of law,” he said.

He further said that their original domain is to catch those involved in the production of cheap and harmful liquor but they are being tasked with raiding restaurants. “We are currently devising a policy on how to handle such issues because we neither want to disturb the customers nor defame the restaurants. People are unaware of laws and thus violate them, therefore, we are planning on educating and informing them about their legal duties,” he said.

Model Town AC Ranjha, who was present during both raids, denied Excise department’s statement of district administration informing them of the illegal consumption of liquor at the restaurant, and said that it was the other way round.

“After the raid at Aylanto, all restaurants became conscious but on the day of the raid at Gai’a there were proofs that liquor bottles were taken inside the restaurant,” he said.

When asked about his presence at both raids, he said that he lives in the vicinity of Gai’a and had joined the team in an “unofficial capacity” on directions of the commissioner.

“We have prepared a list of restaurants where liquor is being served. The commissioner’s idea is to get hold of such restaurants to curb alcohol consumption,” he said while dismissing claims that the commissioner had been acting out of personal grudges.

“The raids had been planned a while ago as we have the power to raid restaurants under Civil Administration Act 2017. These are the concerns of the Chief Minister’s Office as well and directions have been passed to the commissioner from there,” he said.

According to sources, Model Town AC Ranjha was once an ETO before joining the district administration. “There were several inquiries against him for registering non-custom paid vehicles,” sources added.

Masood Bashir Warraich, the ETO who had raided Aylanto along with district administration, said that the district administration was behind the raids and not the Excise department.

Well-informed sources, while commenting on the development, said that if the commissioner actually wants to reform the society, he should also raid high-profile clubs such as Gymkhana but he would never do that since he understands he would be in hot waters.