Kerala High Court backs govt’s bar ban; top-end hotels can continue to serve liquor
THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: Kerala High Court on Thursday gave
a partial ratification for the state government’s new liquor policy. Now bars
in two and three star categories have to be closed down, while 32 bars in
four-stars can function.
As per the liquor policy, only five star hotels were
entitled for liquor license. Kerala has 750-odd bar hotels. Of them, 418 bars
have remained closed since April this year, pending renewal of their license.
Among the rest of the functioning hotels, now five star hotels (21), four star
hotels (33) and heritage hotels (8) can run their liquor bars as per the
verdict of the single bench of the Kerala high court. But, the high court
ratified the closure of a major chunk of the bars, which manage a lion’s part
of bar sales of liquor in Kerala.
The single bench of Justice Surendra Mohan was hearing
80-odd petitions of bar hotel owners challenging the new liquor policy of the
Congress government. The bar hotel owners had argued that there was
discrimination in the government policy mainly on two grounds; that five-star
hotels were allowed to function and the government was still continuing with
the retail business of liquor through Kerala State Beverages Corporation.
Around 80 per cent of the liquor business in Kerala is handled by the
Citing a Supreme Court verdict of 2012, the high court
said there was discrimination in preventing liquor license to four star hotels.
It said the four and five star hotels should be considered equally while
granting liquor licence. The court also evoked the Article 14 of the
Constitution (equality before the law) while referring to the discrimination in
denying liquor licence to four star hotels.
The verdict has not put any deadline for closure of
the now functioning hotels, except 62 bars.
Congress state president VM Sudheeran and Chief
Minister Oommen Chandy welcomed the high court verdict. But aggrieved owners of
two and three category bars said they would appeal against the verdict as a
major chunk of the bar business is handled in these two categories.
It was on August 21 that the Congress-led United
Democratic Front announced its new liquor policy which had closure of all bar
hotels, except those in five-start category and bring down retail outlets in
every year in a manner to go for total prohibition in next one decade.
Already 418 bars, many of them below three-star
category, have been remained closed since April this year following a Supreme
Court directive to decide on renewing the licenses of hotels identified as
sub-standard years back. As the general elections were round the corner, the
Congress government delayed the decision.
Later, the issue emerged as a matter of discord
between Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and party state chief V M Sudheeran, who
was against reopening of the bar. Chandy wanted to take a pragmatic approach –
allow quality hotels to run bars. Sudheeran alleged that a section in the
government was acting for the liquor lobby. As charges and counter-charges for
one-upmanship were traded, Chandy unexpectedly took the decision to close down
all bar hotels in Kerala and go for total prohibition in next one decade.
Accordingly, the government fixed September 12 as the
deadline for the closure of 312 bars functioning in the non-five star category.
But, the bar hotel owners approached the Supreme Court, which asked the Kerala
High Court to consider the petitions and decide before September 30. However,
the court could not meet the deadline of September 30 and in effect the 312
bars got an extended life.
Since October 2, the government had declared Sundays
as dry days apart from closing down 39 retail outlets, 10 per cent of the total
retail outlets, in tune with its new policy to close down all outlets within a
Various quarters have already raised concern over
whether the closure of bars would bring down the sale of foreign liquor in
Kerala. While hearing the bar hotel owners, the State Beverages Corporation had
submitted an affidavit saying the sale of Indian made foreign liquor and beer
have recorded robust growth even after the closure of 418 bar hotels.
As per the statistics furnished in the high court, the
income of Beverages Corporation has increased by Rs 517 crore in the period
from April to August this year, which has been marked by the closure of 418
bars out of 750-odd ones. From April to August in last year, the corporation
had registered a sale of Rs 2720 crore, whereas in the corresponding period in
this year, the business has gone up to Rs 3237 crore.
Also the sale of liquor in now functioning 312 bars
has also increased. If the sale of liquor in these bars was of Rs 221 crore
from April to August last year, the figure has gone up to Rs 403 crore. The
sale of beer in the bars in the first five months of last year was Rs 47 crore.
This has increased to Rs 87 crore in the corresponding period this year.