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TN moves SC against HC order for closure of liquor outlets

New Delhi : The Tamil Nadu government moved to Supreme Court challenging a Madras High Court order for closure of state-run liquor outlets on grounds of violations of COVID-19 guidelines, arguing that it would lead to “grave losses” in revenue and complete halt in commercial activities.

The Madras High Court had on Friday ordered closure of liquor outlets noting that there were huge crowds and no social distancing was being maintained by tipplers. It, however, allowed doorstep delivery of booze through online mode.

The state government, in its appeal, termed the HC order a case of “judicial overreach” and said online sale and home delivery of alcohol were not possible in the entire state.

“It is pertinent that online modes of effective liquor sales are not even available in the vast majority of state at present and can only be implemented after following the due procedures under law,” said the appeal filed by government firm Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation (TASMAC) which sells alcoholic beverages in the state.

Seeking nod to sell liquor through vends also, TASMAC said, “It is pertinent that in the state of Tamil Nadu all liquor retail is owned and operated by TASMAC thus the net effect of the High Court’s order is complete and indefinite standstill of the sale of liquor in the state leading to grave losses to the state’s revenue and commercial activity in the state.”

TASMAC said that there was as many as 10 PILs pending in the HC on the issue and it has “reasons to believe that the entire batch of writ Petitions if not some have been filed by vested private interest, so has to make enormous commercial gains, from the unfortunate situation.”

The Tamil Nadu government firm referred to the apex court’s observation in which it had asked states to consider non-direct contact or online sales and home delivery of liquor during the lockdown period to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“The High Court in passing the impugned judgment has bypassed and misinterpreted the order dated May 08, passed by a three member-bench of this (Supreme) Court…in which this court (SC) declined to direct States to close down liquor stores pending the lockdown and left it to each State’s discretion to consider non-direct sale including online sale/home delivery of liquor,” it said.

“The Supreme Court order recognised that States have a broad margin of power to determine whether and how to effect sales of liquor in this lockdown period and therefore, the Impugned Judgment, is a clear case of judicial overreach and is not sustainable in light of the Supreme Court Order, the plea said.

The appeal said that the state government decided to open the liquor shops on May 5 after keeping in mind the directives issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs on May 1 allowing the sale of liquor in the state subject to restrictions such as ensuring social distancing.

Some of the petitioners, on whose plea the HC ordered closure of liquor vends in the state, has also moved the apex court by filing caveat to ensure that they be also heard if the top court passes any order on the plea of TASMAC.

The high court order restraining sale of liquor off the counters was passed on a miscellaneous petition filed by advocate G Rajesh, besides a plaint from the Kamal Haasan-led Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM).

The HC had said there was total violation of its interim order issued on Wednesday, when it declined to stay a government order allowing resumption of sale of liquor through outlets.

After a dry spell of 43 days due to the COVID-19 lockdown since late March, liquor sales resumed at TASMAC outlets in Tamil Nadu, except state capital Chennai, on Thursday.

Heavy rush was witnessed at most places with people standing in serpentine queues even as the move to allow sale of liquor came in for flak from opposition parties and others, who raised apprehensions that it would lead to further spread of the novel coronavirus, which as of Friday has affected over 6,000 people in the state.

On Wednesday, the bench had directed the government to ensure strict implementation of all appropriate rules, as notified by the state, including maintenance of social distancing at liquor shops while allowing the resumption.

When the matter came up on Friday, petitioner Rajesh submitted that there was a total violation of the guidelines framed as per a May 5 government order and also the norms stipulated by TASMAC and the court.

Tamil Nadu had decided to open retail liquor outlets, citing relaxation of lockdown norms by the central government. Tipplers in border districts of the state were also making a beeline to neighbouring Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka where liquor sales resumed on May 4.

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