A division bench of Kerala high court on Tuesday ratified the new liquor policy of the Congress government, paving the way for closure of all liquor bar hotels except those in the five- star classification.
Accordingly, from April 2 onwards, only 24 five-star hotels in Kerala would have the licence to serve Indian-made foreign liquor (IMFL) as the annual licence of other hotels expires on March 31.
The high court also ratified the diluted portions in the liquor policy which allows the 300-dd bar hotels, to be closed for the sale of liquor, to run as beer parlours. The court also nullified the single bench order which allowed bars in four and heritage-category hotels.
Already a major chunk of the 418 bars closed since last April are now operating as beer and wine parlours after the government incorporated changes in the policy in last December. Hence forth, IMFL would be available only in five-star hotels and 300-odd retail outlets run by the government.
The division bench was considering a bunch of appeals moved by the government and bar hotel owners. The court observed that it could not intervene in the government policy, which is aimed at public welfare. The court said ‘right to drink’ is not a fundamental right and the bar hotel owners need not worry about the loss of revenue for the government.
The government hailed the high court verdict, but bar hotel owners association said they would move appeal in the Supreme Court.
Today’s verdict marks the end of a long-drawn-out episode in the Congress government battle over liquor policy, which had been borne out of a clash between Congress state president V M Sudheeran and Chief Minister Oommen Chandy. Both leaders clashed over the issue of renewal of liquor license of 418 bars which had been identified as sub-standard in 2007. While Sudheeran was firm against renewing their license, Chandy took a pragmatic approach saying that hotels with improved facilities should be given licence.
As the issue snowballed into a major crisis in the government and key political allies supporting the anti-liquor campaigning, Chandy in the last week of August outwitted Sudheeran by announcing total prohibition.
Immediate closure of all bars except ones operating in five-star hotels and winding up of IMFL retail outlets in a phased manner were the highlights of the policy. Even Sundays were declared as dry days. But, the bar hotel owners got reprieve from the court, which allowed interim stay on the decision.
In the meantime, Finance Minister K M Mani landed in a bribery scandal, with the bar owners alleging that the minister had taken bribe for renewing liquor licence.
The bar owners damaging revelations continued till yesterday with their association’s working president Biju Ramesh raising bribery charges against three Congress ministers. Ramesh had given a statement against three Congress ministers, including Excise Minister K Babu.
In December, three months into the new liquor policy, the government decided to water down the liquor policy in the wake of bribery scandal against Mani and reports that the new policy had led to loss of thousands of jobs in hotel industry.
The tourism and labour departments reported to the government that the new liquor policy had led to loss in tourism sector and put at stake job of hundreds of hotel employees. The houseboat industry also had urged the government to change the liquor policy claiming that the news about prohibition had reduced the flow of tourists to Kerala.
The state government had suffered setbacks in the high court, which questioned the logic of allowing only five-star bars. The court exempted the four and heritage category hotels from the purview of closure. In another order, the court asked the government to grant licence to 20-odd fresh applications in four-star grade.
Political parties too mellowed their stand. Thus the government partially rolled back the policy, allowing the closed-down 418 bars to operate as beer and wine parlours with fresh licence for that trade. The dry day prohibition for Sundays was lifted.
Apart from IMFL outlets, five-star bars, beer and wine parlours, the state has 4300-odd toddy shops, which remain out of the purview of the new liquor policy. The government would have to take a decision on three dozen clubs serving IMFL.