SC questions Centre’s rigid position on control over industrial alcohol

Court asks if States can’t regulate industrial alcohol to save lives.

April 09, 2024 10:40 pm | Updated May 02, 2024 04:34 pm IST - NEW DELHI

 A general view of Supreme Court. File.

A general view of Supreme Court. File. | Photo Credit: Shashi Shekhar Kashyap

A nine-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court on April 9 questioned the Centre’s rigid position to have exclusive control over industrial alcohol without giving States even the opportunity to regulate its inflow and clandestine conversion to potable liquor for human consumption, posing a grave threat to public health.

“There is a strong possibility of denatured spirit or industrial alcohol being misused for the purpose of human consumption. The State is the guardian of public health. States are concerned about liquor tragedies happening within their jurisdictions. You [Centre], on the other hand, are a disconnected entity. A national entity. You are not going to be concerned with what happens in a district or a collectorate… Why can’t the State make regulations to prevent the misuse of industrial alcohol and its conversion into intoxicating liquor?” Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud asked Solicitor-General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre.

The Constitution Bench is deciding a tussle between the Union and States over power to levy tax, manufacture, produce alcohol.

The Centre claimed that industrial alcohol was an “industry” controlled by the Union government in public interest under a parliamentary law. Such an industry was covered by Entry 52 of the Union List in the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution. Though trade and commerce, supply, distribution, and production of the products of such industries were included as Entry 33(a) of the Concurrent List, this had to be read in consonance with and as an extension of the Centre’s power under Entry 52. In short, the Centre was in complete control of every aspect of such industries.

Mr. Mehta said the States’ power extended to only “intoxicating liquors” fit for human consumption. This was covered under Entry 8 of the State List along with Entry 6 (public health).

However, States like Kerala, Maharashtra, Punjab and even a petition from Uttar Pradesh raised alarm about industrial alcohol being used to make intoxicating liquor. In such cases, they argued that States cannot remain mute spectators and wait for tragedy to strike.

Chief Justice Chandrachud referred to States like Gujarat and Bihar, where intoxicating liquor was prohibited, and where there was a high possibility of industrial alcohol being abused. The CJI recounted hooch tragedies of the past. “If we accept your rigid classification, it would mean however much the States have prohibited liquor, they cannot control the inflow of the clandestine trade of denatured spirit converted to intoxicating liquor,” Chief Justice Chandrachud asked Mr. Mehta.

The Solicitor-General replied that the term “intoxicating liquor” was confined to beverages commonly used for human consumption.

“When Entry 8 of the State List says ‘intoxicating liquor’, it will be very restrictive for us to say that this applies to only the so-called properly-sourced beverages,” Chief Justice observed.

Justice A.S. Oka asked Mr. Mehta whether clandestinely prepared intoxicating liquor would come under the ambit of Entry 8 and within the State’s power to regulate.

The Solicitor-General said the Centre has retained control over industrial alcohol in public interest. It was empowered under Entry 52 over taxing, manufacture, and production of industrial alcohol to ensure equitable distribution of resources.

“The power is conferred on the Centre to further the principles of federalism,” Mr. Mehta submitted.

He argued that the Union government retained control over an industry if its products had an effect over the entire country.

“The meaning of the word ‘control’ has been expanded to ‘development’. The development of an industry includes sourcing raw materials to distribution, which has to be done at an all India level with a national perspective in mind,” Mr. Mehta explained.

He said giving States power to regulate industrial alcohol to prevent abuse would mean amending the Entry.

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