Upholding the controversial ‘Liquor-Free Kerala’ policy restricting the serving of liquor to five-star hotels in the State, the Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that the State governments be given a free hand to curtail or ban public consumption of alcohol to protect public health and nutrition.
The policy led to the closure of over 400 bars and restricted liquor availability to nearly 20 five-star hotels.
“The consumption of tobacco as well as liquor is now undeniably deleterious to the health of humankind. Vulnerable persons, either because of age or proclivity towards intoxication or as a feature of peer pressure, more often than not succumb to this temptation.
“Banning public consumption of alcohol, therefore, in our considered opinion, cannot but be seen as a positive step towards bringing down the consumption of alcohol, or as preparatory to prohibition,” a Bench of Justices Vikramjit Sen and Shiva Kirti Singh said.
Chance for cure
Justice Sen, who authored the judgment, said the “besieged State” should be given a fair chance to cure itself.
Dismissing the challenge of bar owners, the Bench said: “Litigation pertaining to or challenging liquor policies is legion in our land.”
The Bench said the State could use every weapon in its arsenal to regulate a trade where the profits came from “tempting the customer to take reeling roiling trips into the realm of the jocose, bellicose, lachrymose and comatose.”
The judgment sets a nationwide judicial precedent for States such as Bihar, where liquor sales were recently banned by the Nitish Kumar government, and for the Union government to ban or restrict liquor sale, citing public health.
Justice Sen observed how Kerala had in the past forayed into prohibition and found it “unimplementable.” But still, the State had to keep trying, and such policies should not be struck down or discouraged by courts. But how Kerala planned to implement the policy was not for the court to decide, the Bench observed.
It held that the liquor policy did not violate Article 14 by exempting five-star hotels from the ban.
The court further said the star classification of hotels was not the State government’s doing but that of the Union Ministry of Tourism as per the criteria established for hospitality trade. Again, Justice Sen added that five-star hotels accounted for just .08 per cent of alcohol consumption in the State. Besides, the court said, there was no prohibition on four-star hotels being upgraded as five-star ones.
The court said there was a “reasonable nexus” between the policy exempting five-star hotels and the State’s objective to rescue public health. “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,” the court held. It said the patrons of five-star hotels were of a mature age and did not visit these hotels with the sole purpose of consuming alcohol. However, the Bench made it clear that were it not for the considerations of tourism, the exception of five-star hotels might have been struck down.
The court dismissed arguments by bar owners that the State had shut them down while it owned 80 per cent FL-1 sales through beverage shops and enjoyed monopoly. It said buying liquor in public would act as a deterrent.
Justice Sen, however, said people could still buy from these beverage shops and consume in the privacy of three-star hotel rooms. But that was not “public consumption.”
The court expressed its distress at how the State had not curtailed the consumption of beer and wine.
“If the addiction to alcohol or introduction into this pernicious habit is to be combated, there seems to us to be no justification to allow beer or wine to be publicly consumed…permitting the consumption of beer and wine is a gateway to the consumption of hard liquor, and indeed is a social malaise in itself,” it said.
Warning the State that there should be no lapse in the policing against serving liquor to underage-drinkers, the court highlighted the plight of bar workers on the brink of suicide because of unemployment.
The court gave them liberty to approach the Kerala High Court for the release of funds collected by the State through the five per cent cess from sales in beverage shops for their rehabilitation.