Tamil Nadu approaches Supreme Court to permit opening of liquor shops

Published : May 09, 2020 22:42 IST

At a TASMAC shop in Erode, Aadhaar details of the buyer being scrutinised before the sale of liquor. Photo: M. GOVARTHAN

Citing “judicial overreach” and “grave losses to the State revenue”, the Tamil Nadu government on Saturday challenged in the Supreme Court the May 8 order of the Madras High Court closing down retail liquor shops. Tamil Nadu’s hopes lie in the fact that the Supreme Court had, in an earlier petition seeking a ban on the sale of alcohol, refused to intervene but suggested that online sales could be considered.

Earlier, the State government had opened its retail liquor vending stores on May 7 in all places barring Chennai area. In just one day, the total sale was an unprecedented Rs.170 crore, according to one newspaper report. (The usual daily sale is around Rs.90 crore.) This was despite the many stipulations of the High Court, including a ban on sale of more than one 750 ml bottle for a person at a shop. The buyer had to also carry his Aadhaar card for identification and follow physical distancing at the shop.

The pandemic had shut down almost all sources of the State’s own tax revenue. The main heads of revenue include excise duty on petrol and diesel, stamp duty on land registration, alcohol, duty on sale of precious metals such as gold and vehicle registration. With the Central government repeatedly not keeping its promise on devolving its share of GST and under the Finance Commission award, the State has near-zero income and is hard-pressed to find resources. In a few desperate measures, Tamil Nadu cancelled earned leave for its employees for the year, froze Dearness Allowance for a year, raised the retirement age of its employees from 58 to 59, hiked the excise duty on petrol and opened up liquor sales after many States had done so.

All opposition parties in the State had come down heavily on the government’s decision to open retail liquor shops. A few individuals and outfits, including a political party, Makkal Needhi Maiam, approached the Madras High Court against the decision to open the liquor shops. On May 7, as the shops opened across the State, images and videos of people not adhering to physical distancing went viral on social media platforms. News television, newspapers and websites highlighted how the tipplers did not keep the distancing requirements, raising an alarm over the possible spread of COVID-19.

In fact, soon after the Tamil Nadu government announced its decision to open retail liquor shops, writ petitions were filed in the High Court on May 6. The main plea in them was that the shops should not be open during the pandemic because that would lead to the spread of the coronavirus. The court saw no merit in the petitions.

The next day, another set of pleas were filed seeking total prohibition in Tamil Nadu. These, too, were dismissed. Actor Kamal Hassan, too, filed a writ petition on that day. This was numbered the same day and came up for admission the next day, May 8. Petitioners in some of the petitions that were dismissed on May 6 also filed sub-applications on May 8.

G. Rajesh, an advocate whose petition of May 6 had been dismissed, filed a specific miscellaneous petition (sub-application) to close down liquor shops in view of the pandemic. The order makes a specific reference to his writ, but it heard other counsel too.

The order stated: “We are inclined to modify the order dated 06.05.2020 and the TASMAC is directed to close all of its shops/outlets, which were opened on 07.05.2020 and 08.05.2020 with immediate effect and no shops shall be kept open till the lockdown imposed by the Central/State Government is lifted/modified in accordance with law.”

It was clear that the court was already made seized of the incidents of May 7—when most of its orders on selling alcohol in retail outlets were flouted—even before it commenced the hearings via video conference. Hence, the judges modified the May 6 order and gave a common order on all PILs.

Kamal Hassan had scored a clever political victory because he had a writ at the right place and, at the right time.

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