Alcohol consumption: When is ‘drinking’ legal and what if you break those laws?

Recently, the Delhi government reduced the legal age for alcohol consumption from 25 to 21. Here's a round-up of laws and regulation related to drinking across India.

Recently, the Delhi government reduced the legal age for alcohol consumption from 25 to 21. The government also approved a new excise policy allowing the opening of more liquor stores in the national capital. 

In India, the business of manufacture, sale and consumption of Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) remains one of the most regulated domains with rules varying from state to state.

In this article, we try to explain the laws and rules that govern the sale and consumption of alcohol .

The business of liquor 

As per the Indian Constitution, Item number 51 in the state list, which deals with “alcohol for human consumption”, entrusts the state legislature with the power to draft rules governing the business of liquor in the state.

At the same time, the Constitution (Article 47 – State to raise level of nutrition, standard of living and improve the state of public health) also affixes a high degree of responsibility on the state to ensure that drinks or drugs which are injurious to human health be prohibited. 

Every state has its own set of laws which decide various facets related to drinking like legal age, excise policy, conditions for providing license, grounds for prohibition etc. 

Read more: How much does Bengaluru drink?

The legal age for drinking

Legal age varies from state to state. 

Age Name of the state
18 yearsRajasthan | Himachal Pradesh | Goa | Andhra Pradesh | Sikkim | Puducherry 
23 yearsKerala 
25 yearsMaharashtra (light beer is allowed at the age of 21) | Haryana | Punjab | Chandigarh | Dadra and Nagar Haveli | Daman and Diu 
21 yearsAll the remaining states

Which are the dry states in India? 

Alcohol sale and consumption is totally banned in Bihar, Gujarat, Tripura, Lakshadweep, Mizoram, and Nagaland. It is also banned partially in some districts of Manipur.

How do state governments regulate the alcohol business? 

To understand the laws concerning the alcohol business in India, we take a look at these laws in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi as examples. 

Uttar Pradesh

Uttar Pradesh Excise Act 1910 governs the alcohol business in India’s largest state. The legal age is  21 years, with a penalty of Rs 1000 for violations.

The act also empowers the government to categorize liquor into two categories — county and foreign. Obtaining license from the Collector/District Magistrate, is a prerequisite for sale, manufacture and import of liquor in that particular district. For more than one district, licence shall be obtained from the state’s Excise Commissioner.

Section 23 of the Act prohibits the employment of anyone under the age of 21 years at a place where liquor is being sold and consumed. Violation attracts a meagre penalty of Rs. 1000. Women can be employed only with written permission from the Excise Commissioner and at places where only foreign liquor is being sold and consumed. 

The most important part of the Act is section 37A, which specifies the grounds for prohibition of sale/import/export/transport/possession of liquor. Under the Act, the government can impose prohibition on the following grounds:

  1. Seat of the government (an area from where the government operates, usually a capital city) 
  2. Seat of learning (where educational institutes such as schools, colleges or universities are present) 
  3. Hill area
  4. Industrial area 
  5. Lowered levels of public health or nutrition of the local population 
  6. Place of worship or pilgrimage (this was recently added through anamendment by the current UP government) 
  7. Any other reason which the government finds to be material in the interest of the public at large

As per the Act, if any one selling or manufacturing or importing or exporting or transporting or storing liquor in contravention to the provisions of the Act shall face an imprisonment of three months, which is extendable to three years and a fine of Rs 5,000, extendable to Rs 10,000. 

Madhya Pradesh 

The Madhya Pradesh Excise Act of 1915 also provides for the legal drinking age at 21 years and two categories, country and IMFL. The Act makes license mandatory for carrying out any kind of liquor business in the state. The Act completely bans employment of females and males under 21 years where liquor is being sold. 

Another interesting provision in the Act is the prohibition on advertising relating to liquor in the state. Section 23-A clearly says that no cinema or place of entertainment shall show any advertisement relating to liquor. Similarly, any notice, wrapper, circular, label or other kinds of displays are also not allowed. Making oral or non-oral announcements are also prohibited under the Act. This prohibition also applies to newspapers, leaflets, brochures, books or any other kind of publication. On violation, imprisonment upto six months or a fine which may extend to Rs. 2000 or both can be imposed. 

While liquor and tobacco advertisements are actually prohibited across the country, some states have tweaked or customised the laws. The Delhi law, for example, allows advertisements related to responsible drinking. 

Liquor licenses can be cancelled or suspended by the government on the following grounds:

  • In case of breach of any condition in the license 
  • In case of non payment of duty 
  • If the license holder is convicted of any cognizable and non-bailable offence 
  • If the license holder or his workers or anybody acting on his behalf is convicted for crimes under this Act or any other Act in force like Indian Penal Code, Dangerous Drugs Act etc. 
  • On request of the licensee 

For any kind of unlawful manufacture or possession or transport of liquor, the Act under Section 34 provides for imprisonment which may extend upto one year and a fine which shall not be less than Rs 500 and extendable upto Rs 5000. 

Also, a person convicted for the second time under the same provision of the Act, shall be liable for imprisonment of not less than two months and extendable upto 24 months and a fine of not less than Rs 2000extendable upto Rs 10,000.


Delhi Excise Act 2009 governs the alcohol business in the national capital and Deputy Commissioner, Excise Administration, Delhi is legallyauthorized to supervise and regulate the alcohol business. Violation of the legal age of 21 years can attract a fine of Rs 10,000. 

Anyone caught doing  illegal liquor business in Delhi, faces  imprisonment of six months, extendable upto three years and a fine of Rs 50,000 to Rs 1 lakh.  

The Act totally prohibits the employment of any person less than 21 years or having contagious disease at the place of selling liquor. Violations will attract imprisonment of up to three months or a fine of up to Rs 50,000 or both.  

The Act confers extra power to the Magistrate for crimes related to liquor. As per Section 55, a Magistrate can impose any kind of enhanced (in excess of his/her original powers under the Act) penalties on the violator except life imprisonment or imprisonment for more than six years. In case of a second conviction under the Act, the quantum of punishment is double the original punishment. 

One of the key highlights of the Act is the compounding powers (power to settle minor offences) it grants to the Assistant Commissioner of the excise administration. Under Section 57, a person who is suspected of having committed a minor offense may apply for compounding of offense. On receiving such application, the Assistant Commissioner has to apply his/her discretion for compounding the offense on payment of a sum of money known as compounding fee as compensation. 

Any offence other than adulteration, sale of non-duty paid liquor, illicit manufacture/sale/possession/transport, rendering denatured spirit for human consumption, mixing of noxious substances, tampering sealed bottles and sale to minors will be treated as a minor offence.  

Under Section 79, the Excise Commissioner has the full right to regulate any kind of advertisements regarding liquor. Although the Act provides discretionary powers to the commissioner to allow any such advertisement that is educative and promotes responsible drinking. 

Read more: Living next to a TASMAC outlet: A citizen experience

Illicit liquor

Despite rules in places, Indian cities have been rocked by several hooch tragedies that have claimed several lives. Last year, almost 100 people died after consuming illicit liquor in Punjab. The tragedy was reported from three major cities: Tarn Taran, Amritsar rural and Batala.  

Despite being a dry state for the last five years, sale and consumption of illicit liquor is on the rise in many suburban areas of Bihar. As a result, eight people had died in two days (30th and 31st March). Thestate has registered four such incidents in the last three months. 

In the beginning of this year, 25 deaths occurred due to illicit liquor consumption in Morena district of Gwalior, while 14 people had died in Ujjain last year. Several illegal units manufacturing illicit liquor have been raided and seized by police in the capital city of Bhopal in the wake of Morena and Ujjain tragedies.  

Drunk driving and Supreme Court’s order on banning liquor shops on highways

Drunk driving is one of the major causes of road deaths in India. In the last three years, it has led to more than 38,000 road accidents. Representational image from Pixabay (Creative Commons)

In 2016, the SC, in view of the rising drunk driving cases, imposed a blanket ban on liquor shops within 500 meters of any national or state highway. An exception was created for highways within the city limits. The decision drew strong criticism from business and hotel lobbies who claimed that the order led to loss of business and livelihoods.. Hotels also shared their concern on loss of star based ratings due to the ban. 

However, five years later, activists feel that SC’s order is being ignoredand highways have once again seen a spurt in opening of liquor shops. Also, the states have found a way around the order by denotifying the highways, giving rise to another problem, bad maintenance of these roads.  

Drunk driving is one of the major causes of road deaths in India. In the last three years, it has led to more than 38,000 road accidents. Drunk driving accounted for 3% of the total road accidents in 2017. Moreover, 3000 people died in drunk driving  incidents in 2019 alone, with 6,675 people injured. In total, 12,256 incidents of driving under the influence were reported in 2019. 

Law against ‘drink and drive’ in India

The crime of drunk driving is enumerated under Section 185 of the Motor Vehicles Act 1988. A person can be charged under one of any two conditions:

1. If alcohol level in his/her blood is found to be more than 30 mg per 100 ml, detected by a breath analyzer


2. The person is under the influence of intoxicants to such an extent that it makes him incapable of exercising proper control of the vehicle. 

For the first time, the Act provides for imprisonment which may extend to six months or a fine of upto Rs 10,000 or both. 

For the second offence, the imprisonment may extend to two years or a fine of Rs 15,000 or both.

Is the right to drink a fundamental right?

A trickier question to answer. In 2016, the Bihar High Court identified the right to drink as a fundamental right. However, a year later, the Kerala High Court unequivocally stated that the right to drink is not a fundamental right. The apex court has also said time and again that what to eat and drink is one’s personal matter and essential to Article 21 of the Constitution which talks about Right to life and personal liberty. 

However, the apex court has also clarified that such rights can be curtailed if the restriction by the state/government is on the basis of compelling public interest.  

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