SC upholds Kerala’s liquor policy

New Delhi, Dec 29 (IANS) The Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld the Kerala government’s liquor policy restricting service and consumption of liquor at bars in five star hotels only, saying the policy of curbing public consumption of alcohol did not suffer from any arbitrariness.

“We find no illegality or irrationality with the intention of the state to clamp down on public consumption of alcohol. So the policy does not suffer from the vice of arbitrariness,” said a bench of Justice Vikramajit Sen and Justice Shiva Kirti Singh in their judgement.

Observing that the consumption of liquor in Kerala had attained an “alarming proportions” when compared to other states, the court noted: “As much as 80 percent of the sale of alcohol is through the state monopoly outlets possessing FL-1 licences, aggregating Rs.6,260 crore in 2012-13.”

“The court cannot be blind to the fact that a social stigma at least as far as the family unit is concerned still attaches to the consumption of alcohol. Free trade in alcohol denudes family resources and reserves and leaves women and children as its most vulnerable victims,” said Justice Sen speaking for the bench and accepting the state’s argument that drinking at home in the family with wife and children present was discouraging.

Supporting the policy of permitting the sale and consumption of liquor at bars in five star hotels only, the court noted that these comprised the smallest percentage of sales of liquor.

“We cannot therefore detect any arbitrariness or capriciousness either in the classification, nay the unique treatment given by the state to hotels possessing five star rating,” the court said.

“The prices/tariff of alcohol in five star hotels is usually prohibitively high, which acts as a deterrent to individuals going in for binge or even casual drinking. There is also little scope for cavil that the guests in five star hotels are of a mature age; they do not visit these hotels with the sole purpose of consuming alcohol,” it said, dismissing a batch of petitions including by Kerala Bar Hotels Association challenging the liquor policy.

The petitions had challenged the excise policy for 2014-15 as well as the amendments to the Foreign Liquor Rules as being discriminatory

Noting that Kerala had in past taken series of steps to curb public consumption of alcohol, the court said that the state must be given a chance to combat the rise of alcohol. “The state may be sanguine in its assessment of the success of the impugned policy, but it must be given a chance to combat the rise in alcohol,” it said.

“History has painstakingly made it abundantly clear that prohibition has not succeeded. Therefore strict state regulation is imperative. The state of Kerala had in the past forayed into prohibition, but found it to be unimplementable.”

Addressing the submission that five star hotels have created outlets to sell liquor at lower rates, the court said it “must express our distress at the allegations made, not without some substance” and held such five star hotels should be denuded of their ranking.

“This may be a good and sufficient reason to denude these hotels of their five star gradation. Such malpractice will have to be immediately erased by the state, as its failure to do so it will only invite further litigation on the grounds that the policy to prohibit public consumption of alcohol is only cosmetic and partisan.”

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