In Kerala, booze in 5-star bars only

In Kerala, booze in 5-star bars only

The Kerala High Court on Tuesday upheld the state government’s controversial liquor policy that envisages closure of all bars in the state outside of the five-star category.

A division bench of the High Court nullified an earlier order by a single bench that exempted bars in four-star and heritage hotels from the ban. With the order in place, only 24 bars in five-star hotels will remain open from Wednesday while 300 in the other categories will down shutters. Bar owners are set to approach the Supreme Court against the verdict.

The court observed that it could not interfere in a Cabinet-cleared government policy aimed at reducing alcohol consumption in the state. Excise Department officials were directed to seal stocks in the closing bars after 10.30 pm on Tuesday.

In October last year, a single bench of the High Court had partially backed the government’s new liquor policy that proposed closure of all bars outside of the five-star category but exempted two more categories – four-star bars and heritage bars – from the ban. The Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) government challenged the verdict while bar owners also appealed against the ban on bars in two-star and three-star hotels.

Excise Minister K Babu called the order a “100 per cent victory” for the government. The minister said the order validated the government’s proclaimed policy to cut down availability and consumption of liquor in the state.

“The government had also reviewed the policy in the wake of concerns from the tourism industry (on closure of bars) and the issue of rehabilitation of bar employees before deciding to issue fresh beer and wine parlour licences,” Babu told reporters here. Congress leader and senior lawyer Kapil Sibal represented the government in the case.

Beer parlours
The government in 2014 closed down 418 bars over poor maintenance. It, however, provided beer and wine parlour licences to the bars with upgraded amenities. Babu said proprietors of bars closing on Tuesday were also eligible for beer and wine parlour licences provided they matched prescribed hygiene standards.

The government, as per the new liquor policy, has also commenced an annual shut-down of 10 per cent of the total number of the state-run Kerala State Beverages Corporation outlets.

Rajkumar Unni, president of the Kerala Bar Hotel Owners Association, said the association would challenge the division bench verdict in the SC.

The controversial liquor policy has dominated political debate in the state over the past six months, also snowballing into a major bribery scam involving Finance Minister K M Mani in connection with issuance of bar licences.

With the legal battle set to shift to the apex court, the issue is far from settled for the government that will also have to coordinate rehabilitation of an estimated 20,000-odd workforce.

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