The Congress-led government in Kerala heaved a sigh of relief on Tuesday as the Kerala High Court upheld its policy to impose prohibition in the state in a phased manner.

A division bench comprising Justices KT Sankaran and Babu Mathew P Thomas allowed the government to shut down all bars – except the 24 in the five-star category – and nullified an earlier order of a single bench that allowed bars in four-star and heritage hotels to function.

Furthermore, the division bench ratified the government decision to allow the closed bars to function as beer and wine parlours, which, the government rationalised, were needed to protect employment and promote tourism. There are currently 312 bars in three- and four-star hotels in the state. For them to survive, they will have to apply for beer and wine parlour licences.

The bar hotel owners’ association said it will challenge the verdict in the Supreme Court. It had fought the case in the high court, arguing that the government’s policy was discriminatory. But the division bench rejected that argument and said the Constitution had given the state the right to introduce prohibition.

The court noted that a ban on the sale or consumption of liquor does not impinge on the fundamental right of the citizen. A state government, it added, has every right to frame its liquor policy and went on to laud the Congress-led United Democratic Front government for its bold step to protect the health of the people.

Kerala is the highest consumer of liquor in the country. Last year, the per capita alcohol consumption in the southern state was 8.3 litres as against the national average of 4 litres.

The government’s liquor policy aims to make the state totally dry in 10 years. It will start by closing down all bars below five-star category immediately and then wind up every year 10% of the retail outlets being run by government agencies. The policy was announced last year after the Congress party failed to reach a consensus on reopening 418 bars closed before the Lok Sabha election on hygiene grounds.

The policy is estimated to cause the state exchequer an annual loss of Rs 8,000-9,000 crore.

The bribery case

The court’s verdict on Tuesday provided some relief to a government rattled by bribery charges. Not long after the new liquor policy was unveiled, the Kerala Bar Owners Association working president Biju Ramesh had accused Finance Minister KM Mani of taking a bribe of Rs 1 crore to reopen 418 closed bars. This caused widespread outrage in Kerala, with the opposition spearheading a massive agitation to demand Mani’s resignation.

On March 13, when the government was slated to present the state budget, the opposition protests led to unruly scenes and violence. As a determined opposition refused to allow Mani to go ahead with budget-related activities, the Assembly’s budget session was curtailed. The high court verdict came a day after Biju Ramesh sought to put Excise Minister K Babu and two other Congress ministers in the dock.

None had expected the court victory to be this easy, given the conditions in which the policy was announced and the controversies it kicked off subsequently. Many thought the government would go soft after the bar owners tied it down in bribery charges. Its decision to allow 418 bars closed from April 1, 2014, to function as beer and wine parlours was seen as a direct result of the graft allegations.

Still the government stuck to its position. On the political front it defended the finance minister against the opposition’s onslaught, and on the legal front it brought in senior lawyer and former Union minister Kapil Sibal to challenge the battery of heavyweights fielded by the bar owners.

Jubilant government

Expectedly then, the UDF government was pleased at the division bench’s verdict. More so, it somehow saw the ruling as a rebuttal of the corruption charges.

Excise Minister K Babu said the judgement was a befitting reply to the allegations levelled against the government by the bar owners and opposition. He said Biju’s charge against him that he demanded Rs 10 crore to reopen the closed bars was part of a conspiracy hatched in connivance with the opposition Left Democratic Front to topple the government. He alleged the conspiracy was plotted at the residence of a Communist Party of India (Marxist) MLA in Thiruvananthapuram on December 15.

“Biju, who owns a chain of hotels across the state, is playing into the hands of the opposition, which is trying to discredit the government out of desperation,” Babu added.

Apart from dealing a blow to the bar owners, the court’s verdict disappointed many of those in Kerala who enjoy their drink. “If the government’s intention is to free the state from liquor it should have shut down all bars,” said Roy Abraham, a software engineer at Kochi. “The government is favouring the rich by sparing the five-star bars, which common people like us cannot afford.”