SC picks holes in Kerala’s liquor policy and asks if gradual prohibition will ever be possible
Makes it clear it cannot direct the state to grant liquor licenses to a particular category of hotels and can either uphold or strike down the policy as a whole.
The Supreme Court on Thursday picked holes in the new liquor policy of Kerala, which plans to gradually moving towards prohibition, to confine liquor licenses only to 26 five star hotels in the state and asking the three and four star bar owners to open wine and beer parlours.
Hurling pointed questions to senior lawyer Kapil Sibal who was representing Kerala, a bench of justices Vikramajit Sen and Shiva Kirti Singh who was hearing petition filed by three and four star bar owners who have challenged the “discriminatory policy” asked “We are told liquor still available freely in beaverage shops as only three and four star bars are closed. Mini fridges in three star hotelrooms, mini bars in four star ones are part of tourism policy. So do you think prohibition in kerala will be successful? By the way why do you want to try a policy that was a failure at least ten times in various states?
“Tobacco in all quantities is bad. Has it been medically proved that alcohol in small portions is bad? So far as society is concerned what is percentage of those who become alcoholics? Sen asked Sibal. But at the same time the court made it clear that it will cannot direct the state to grant liquor licenses to a particular category of hotels and can only either uphold or strike down the policy as a whole.
But as the day’s hearing drew to a close, Sibal seemed to have largely convinced the bench about the rationale behind the liquor policy. Referring to the argument of 3 and 4 star bar owners that confining licenses only to 26 five star hotels in the state was a violation of “right to equality” guaranteed by the constitution, Sibal said “Article 14 cannot apply in case of liqour trade. Even if article 14 applicable, government has the power for imposing unreasonable restriction. Government can choose the category of hotel in which foreign liquor can be served”.
“Discrimination will be if any particualr 5 star hotel alleges that they denied bar licence, while other 5 star hotels are enjoying it. That may come under article 14. Otherwise that is not applicable. Justice Sen observed “Of course. We cannot ask government to give license to a particular category of hotels like three star or four star We can only strike down the policy or uphold it”.
The court during an earlier hearing asked the state:“You say that saving the youth from its harmful effects is the main purpose. Then why do you allow five star hotels to serve liquor. Either you have prohibition or you do not have prohibition. How do you classify the bars? See the models of car involved in drunken driving accidents and the age of most of the offender. These days many youth can afford a 5-star hotel”,
The bar owners had challenged the March 31 order of the Kerala High Court upholding the state government’s liquor policy which said that alcohol can be served only in the 26 five star hotels across the state and allowing amendments in liquor law to allow opening of more wine and beer parlours.
“Nobody can dispute state’s right to prohibit liquor. But the moment you decide not to prohibit completely you have to treat all classes equally. Today 5 star hotels, clubs, toddy shop which number up to 5,000 and those who pay 25,000 and get a license for a private function, all can serve liquor. Then where is the prohibition .They say drink as much as you want .State says do not drink in public place drink in private place but within private place can you classify?” lawyer Aryama Sundaram who had appeared for the bar owners had asked the court.
Defending the classification, lawyer Sibal said: “14.9 % of liquor consumption of the country is in Kerala. What is happening to youth? After college they go to bars and get drunk. Only 26 five -star hotels can now serve. How many young people go there otherwise there were 732 bars of all sized in kerala where they went”.
“Slowly we are moving towards prohibition it can't be done overnight. Every year 10 percent of liquor shops will be closed down. Right of bar owners cannot be equated with right of youth whose career is getting ruined. We are aware of the consequences of it on the economy but everything in the interest of youth”, he said.
“There is no ulterior motive behind the ban. Only the shocking scene of young faces with notes in one hand waiting outside bars as early as 8.30 am is what is worrying us. The life of todays youth is getting destroyed. People don't come to my State just to drink liquor. It's a lovely place”, said Sibal adding “a policy cannot foresee all situations. It is an endeavour by State for liquor-free kerala and will not fructify overnight”, Sibal added.