The Bombay High Court on Tuesday dismissed two pleas by the Hotel & Restaurant Association (Western India), Indian Hotel & Restaurant Association (commonly known as AHAR) and others representing hotels that self-serve foreign liquor (FL) vendors seeking to set aside a January 28, 2020 notification issued by the Maharashtra government that prescribed the FL-III license renewal fees for 2021–2022.
The court also imposed a cost of Rs 1 lakh each on the nine petitioner associations (total Rs 9 lakh) to be paid for the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund within two weeks.
A division bench of Justices Gautam S Patel and Madhav J Jamdar held, “We believe it is time to send a firm signal that the time of the court is not to be taken for granted, nor should there be any attempt to gamble on litigation. When a court’s time is squandered on frivolous matters, there will be consequences.”
The petitioners, which included nine associations and four hotel owners, had sought a time extension or an instalment payment facility and demanded a reduction in the license renewal fees as they were being allowed to operate only at 50% capacity due to the Covid-19 pandemic-induced restrictions.
Senior advocate Viraag Tulzapurkar appearing for the petitioners called the notification “unreasonable, irrational and arbitrary” and sought that those who had already paid 100% for the previous year, should be allowed to “adjust” 50% for the 2021–2022 period in view of the pandemic restrictions. The petitioners also claimed to be “victims” of the Covid-19 disaster under the Disaster Management Act, 2005 and therefore, entitled for rehabilitation to mitigate their losses.
However, Advocate General Ashutosh Kumbhakoni representing the government, opposed the pleas and submitted that the state has already “bent backwards” to grant concessions to FL-III licensees to ameliorate their losses due to the pandemic and allowed the payment of license fees for FY 2020-21 in three instalments and also allowed a concession of 15% to those licensees who paid the entire license fees on or before April 30, 2020.
Furthermore, the state extended time to pay license fees till June 1, 2020, which was extended later with two installments for payment. He said that the government notification of December 24, 2020 gave a special concession for FL-III license holders and reduced license fees by 50%.
He added that of a total of 17,605 licensees across the state, 16,683 licensees have paid one hundred per cent, i.e. the full license fee for 2021–2022 and another 922 have paid 50% license fees and are expected to pay the rest before March 31.
“Every single one of these measures were or had to be known to the petitioners. The petitions are totally silent on these aspects. That is yet another reason to dismiss this,” the bench held.
It noted in the judgment, “These Petitions are, at best, worthless from start to finish and, at worst, thoroughly irresponsible. We find it a submission of mind-numbing insensitivity for these foreign liquor vending hotels to put themselves on the same level as the true victims who fell to the onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic. There is no legal, let alone fundamental right established to have a FL-III license at all. It is not compulsory… We do not believe the pandemic can be cited time and again by businessmen to get extraordinary concessions. The pandemic affected everyone. All businesses suffered. No exceptional prejudice was caused to the present Petitioners. The Petitioners’ right to conduct business is not absolute in a time of global distress.”
Justice Patel, who authored the verdict for the bench, observed, “Under no circumstances can the Petitioners be heard to say or even suggest that the pandemic was not their fault and therefore they should be compensated. The pandemic was not the fault of the government either. The government had a mammoth responsibility, far beyond the narrow commercial concerns of the Petitioners and their foreign liquor vending business. The Government was struggling with essential services and commodities; a class that emphatically excludes the Petitioner, even if the name of one of its vendible products is from the Gaelic translation of a Latin phrase for ‘water of life’. The needs of the many will always outweigh the needs of the few. The State was fully entitled to order the shut-down of Petitioner’s establishments in the general public interest amidst the pandemic.”