Kochi: In a blow to bar owners, the Kerala High Court on Thursday upheld the validity of the Congress-led UDF government's new liquor policy, paving the way for closure of 700 bars attached to small and medium hotels in the state.
The court, however, gave some reprieve, allowing 33 bars in four-star and heritage category hotels to function after the state government had banned bars in all hotels below five-star ranking. Twenty bars in five-star hotels were allowed to operate by the court.
The court order was a shot in the arm for the Congress-led UDF government, which has set a goal of total prohibition by 2023 through its new excise policy.
The judgement was passed by Justice Surendra Mohan on a batch of petitions by Kerala bar owners against the state government's August 22 'no liquor' policy to close down bars attached to hotels below five-star category.
Chief Minister Oommen Chandy said the court order was a recognition of the state government's excise policy.
Rejecting the stand that the court allowing bars attached to four-star category hotels was a setback to the government, he said only around 60 bars were allowed to function now.
"This cannot be seen as partial recognition of the liquor policy," Chandy told reporters in Thiruvananthapuram,
Disposing of the 81 petitions, the court said that a claimant cannot have an expection 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 measurers 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 eligiblity to be granted bar license.
The ruling UDF had adopted the new liquor policy with a view to reducing the availability of liquor in the state to achieve its goal of 'total prohibition by 2023'.
Justice 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.
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 bar owners moved a petition seeking a three-week stay on implementation of the judgement, which was dismissed by the court.
The court said the bar owners can approach the division bench and seek interim orders.
The government had earlier declined to renew the licenses of 418 sub-standard bars and later decided to close down another 312 bars.