Kochi | In a shot in the arm for the Congress- led UDF government, which has set a goal of total prohibition by 2023, the Kerala High Court today held as valid its new excise policy paving the way for closure of 700 liquor bars attached to hotels in the state.
However, the court allowed 33 bars in four-star and heritage category hotels to function though the state government had banned bars in all hotels below the five-star status. Twenty bars in five-star hotels were allowed to function by the court.
The judgement was passed by Justice Surendra Mohan on a batch of petitions by Kerala Bar Owners against the state government’s August 22 decision to close down bars attached to hotels below five-star category. The ruling UDF had adopted the new liquor policy with view to reducing the availability of liquor in the state to achieve its goal of ‘total prohibition by 2023′.
Justice Surendra Mohan said the excise policy for 2014-15 was formulated on the basis of judgements of high court and the Supreme Court and report of a one-man commission and recommendation of Tax Secretary of the state. The court also relied on the apex court verdict that state would not deny bar licences to hotels with the classification of four star and above, the judge said.
He held that no materials had been placed before it to justify the conclusion that the August 22 policy was not supported by a decision of council of ministers. In the absence of such materials, contention of bar hotels was rejected, the judge held.
The bar owners had approached the court contending that the government’s decision to close the bars was taken in ‘haste’ and would be counter productive as it would lose substantial revenue from Abkari (excise) business, besides impacting tourism.
The petitioners had contended that a substantial revenue of the government was augmented from the taxes, duties, and rentals collected from the abkari business. At at time when Kerala was running on overdraft, the state government had not examined the impact of prohibiting vending of liqour in hotels other than those classified as five star hotels, they stated.
Disposing of the 81 petitions, the court said that a claimant cannot have an expectation that is impermissible. The court observed that there is a steady increase in liqour consumption in the state and efforts to reduce consumption fail to achieve any significant results. Demand is phenomenal and displays an increase every year.
Unless the reason is identified and measures to remedy the same, it will not be possible to reduce consumption, it said. Holding that there was no substantial difference between bars in four-star, heritage hotels and those in the five-star categories and above, the court set aside the excise policy to the extent that it excludes bars in four-star and heritage hotels for the eligibility to be granted bar licence.
The bar owners moved a petition seeking a three-week stay on implementation of the judgement, which was dismissed by the court. It said the bar owners can approach the division bench and seek interim orders. The state government, following a direction from the Supreme Court, had filed an affidavit stating that it was its ‘avowed’ policy to reduce liquor consumption in the state in a phased manner and to achieve the goal of total prohibition within a 10-year span.
The apex court had asked the government to file the affidavit on a batch of appeals filed by 300 odd bar owners challenging the decision to close down all bars, except those in five star hotels. The government had earlier declined to renew the licences of 418 sub-standard bars and later decided to close down another 312 bars.
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