SC stays Madras HC order asking TN govt to close liquor shops in State

"...we cannot trust anybody to carry liquor. There will be riots. Tamil Nadu is not like Delhi," argues Mukul Rohatgi.

May 15, 2020 01:59 pm | Updated November 28, 2021 12:05 pm IST - New Delhi

A photograph of a Tasmac employee taken before the lockdown. Photograph used for representational purposes only

A photograph of a Tasmac employee taken before the lockdown. Photograph used for representational purposes only

The Supreme Court on Friday stayed a Madras High Court order of May 8 to close liquor shops in the State with immediate effect to maintain physical distancing till the COVID-19 lockdown is lifted or modified.

A Bench of Justices L. Nageswara Rao, S.K. Kaul and B.R. Gavai also froze the proceedings before the high court even as it issued formal notice to the respondents (who were PIL petitioners in the high court), asking them to respond within four weeks.

For the State, senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi, Additional Advocate General Balaji Srinivasan and advocate Yogesh Kanna vociferously argued that the high court order is arbitrary and unreasonable . It is a case of judiciary encroaching into State policy. "It is the decision of the State how and what to sell... Why should the high court get into it? Why should a person need an Aadhaar card to buy liquor? Plus, we cannot trust anybody to carry liquor. There will be riots. Tamil Nadu is not like Delhi," Mr. Rohatgi submitted.


Mr. Srinivasan submitted that the State has already imposed restrictions and is closely enforcing and monitoring social distancing norms. He said the high court had stepped outside its domain. Conditions imposed by the high court, like a person cannot purchase more than two bottles of alcohol of any one type and must give Aadhaar details at the time of sale, were both illogical and unworkable, Mr. Srinivasan argued.

Mr. Rohatgi pointed out that home delivering liquor would expose it to adulteration and would also cause social and domestic problems. "Tamil Nadu is huge State unlike Delhi," he submitted during the hearing held through videoconferencing.

Both Mr. Rohatgi and Mr. Srinivasan said the high court's decision would lead to an indefinite closure of liquor shops. This would lead to 'grave' revenue and commercial losses.


Mr. Srinivasan pointed out that the high court's ban order was passed the very same day the Supreme Court dismissed an identical call to close liquor shops across the country. Further, the Supreme Court had clarified on May 8 that a decision on online sales and home delivery of liquor would be left entirely to the discretion of the States.

Tamil Nadu's liquor retail is owned and operated by the Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation Limited (TASMAC). The high court order on May 8 for an open-ended ban was on the basis of petitions by parties interested in keeping the State-run liquor shops closed.

On the issue of online liquor sales and home delivery, Tamil Nadu has specifically maintained that "e-payment and home delivery call for immense logistical coordination, supply chain management, which needs time manpower, especially in the present COVID-18 situation".

Besides, it has pointed out that the Tamil Nadu Liquor (License and Permit) Rules, 1981 did not provide for online sales. State would also have to amend the Tamil Nadu Liquor Retail Vending (In Shops and Bars) Rules of 2003. The high court cannot dictate liquor sale policy to the government.

The State had issued a government order on May 5 to resume the operation of TASMAC shops from May 7. The order was in line with a directive issued by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs on May 1 permitting the sale of liquor in States, subject to physical distancing.

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