December,29,2015: The Supreme Court today ratified the Kerala Government’s new liquor policy of 2014, which called for a closure of all bars (700-odd) except those in five-star category. Until a further visit to the liquor policy, the state would have only 27 bars where Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) would be served legally.
The Congress has openly welcomed the SC’s decision upholding its new liquor policy, but troubles for the government from the bottled bar are far from over.
In fact, the new policy stemmed from a clash between Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and Congress state chief V M Sudheeran in early 2014 over granting licence for 418 “sub-standard bars’’.
When Sudheeran insisted that such bars should remain closed, Chandy wanted that eligible ones be allowed to function. As the tug of war intensified, Chandy turned the table on Sudheeran by going for closure of all bars.
The Government has already paid price for its new policy in the form of bar bribery scandal, which led to the fall of Finance Minister K M Mani. Bar owners had leaked their conversations dropping enough hints about the payments made to Congress Ministers K Babu, Ramesh Chennithala and V S Sivakumar. Mani is facing a further probe into the allegation that he took bribe for facilitating the reopening of sub-standard bars.
If the bar owners had obtained a favourable verdict from the SC, they would not have bothered to trouble the government further as it would have brought IMFL business back in closed bars. Now, the bar owners have threatened that they would make damning disclosures against all those who had pocketed money from them. This would spell further trouble for Mani, Babu and others, keeping bar bribery scandal live until the next assembly elections, four months away.
The government would try to play down the threat as a blackmail tactics of the bar owners. Although the bar owners would demand a review of the policy highlighting the investment and employment at stake in the industry, the Congress cannot go for a such a step ahead of assembly elections.
The only relief for bar owners would be to exert pressure on the government to close down state-owned liquor retail outlets operating near their bars now converted into beer parlous. In last one year, the government had already favoured the bar owners in that manner. Besides, the government had ensured business opportunities for trouble making bar owners in various projects in order to ensure that they did not further embarrass the government in the bar scandal.
The judgment of the Apex Court was rendered by a bench comprising of Justice Vikramajit Sen and Justice Shiva Kirti Singh in a sitting specially convened for the purpose today.
The Supreme Court observed in a lucidly written judgment that history has painstakingly made it abundantly clear that prohibition has not succeeded, and therefore strict state regulation is imperative. The Court said referring to Article 47 of the Constitution that it places a responsibility on every State Government to at least contain if not curtail consumption of alcohol and the impugned Policy, therefore, is to be encouraged and is certainly not to be struck down or discouraged by the Courts. “ How this policy is to be implemented, modified, adapted or restructured is the province of the State Government and not of the Judiciary,” observed the Bench.
At this stage, it would be worthwhile to look at whether the closure of bars has contributed to serve the government intention to bring down the liquor consumption in Kerala.
When 700-odd bars were prevented from selling the IMLF, they were converted into beer and wine parlours. A year into the new policy, the number of beer parlours has gone up to 800.
The closure of bars increased the retail sale of IMFL at government outlets. Besides, the sale of toddy, narcotic substances and illicit liquor has gone up after the bar closure as per the government statistics.
Read Full Text of the Judgment-