Reminding all state governments that the Constitution places a responsibility on them to “at least contain, if not curtail, consumption of alcohol”, the Supreme Court today approved Kerala’s new liquor policy that prohibits drinking in public and restricts serving of alcohol to five-star hotels.
A bench of Justices Vikramjit Sen and Shiva Kirti Singh held that “strict state regulation is imperative” to discourage regular and excessive consumption of alcohol. Hence, it said, not granting bar licences to hotels other than five-star establishments has to be viewed as a “positive step towards bringing down the consumption of alcohol, or as preparatory to prohibition”.
It underlined: “The court cannot be blind to the fact that a social stigma at least as far as the family unit is concerned is still attached to the consumption of alcohol. Free trade in alcohol denudes family resources and reserves and leaves women and children as its most vulnerable victims.”
Dismissing a clutch of petitions filed by hotels and their associations against the new policy, the bench was unequivocal: “We find no illegality or irrationality with the intention of the State to clamp down on public consumption of alcohol…the impugned policy, therefore, is to be encouraged and is certainly not to be struck down or discouraged by the courts.”
The verdict has come as a shot in the arm of Oommen Chandy’s Congress-led UDF government as the state goes for assembly polls within five months. Kerala has around two dozen five-star hotels.
Applauding the decision, Kerala Excise Minister K Babu told reporters: “We will go ahead very strongly with our anti-liquor campaign programmes as we want this habit to be removed from our society.”
The apex court found favour with Kerala’s argument that the policy aimed to curb excessive consumption of alcohol in the state, which constitutes almost 14 per cent of the national consumption rate.
“So far as this trade is concerned, Article 47 of the Constitution places a responsibility on every State Government to at least contain if not curtail consumption of alcohol…consumption of tobacco and liquor is undeniably deleterious to the health… 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,” said the court.
Rejecting a contention regarding the classification of five-star and other hotels as being discriminatory, the bench noted that it has been made not only on the basis of status but also in the interests of tourism. “In other words, were it not for considerations of tourism, this exception in favour of five-star hotels may have been struck down,” it clarified.
The court also asked the state government to strictly regulate serving of liquor at five-star hotels after noting that some establishments have created special bars at lower prices.
It further cautioned against the issuance of licences rampantly for the sale of consumption of beer and wine, pointing out that it is “a gateway to the consumption of hard liquor, and indeed is a social malaise in itself,” and urged the state government to review its norms.