They that sleep resemble the dead; likewise, they that drink are no other than poison eaters.

Couplet 926 of Chapter 93 titled “not drinking palm wine”

Madras High Court: A Division Bench of P.N. Prakash and B. Pugalendhi, JJ. addressed a petition with regard the legality and validity of decision of the State Government to re-open the State-owned TASMAC shops for retailing vending of liquor to public.

In the evening of 6th May, 2020, Division Bench of this Court had imposed further restrictions for vending liquor in the TASMAC outlets.

Bench in the present case observed that,

“Armed with the nod of the Division Bench, the State, like Julius Caesar, turning deaf ears to the caution of the soothsayer “Beware Ides of March”, went ahead with re-opening the TASMAC shops on 07.05.2020.”

“Unfortunately, for the State, the incidents that unfurled from 07.05.2020 as a sequel to the re-opening of the TASMAC shops, brought gloom and doom to the citizens. Tipplers in serpentine queues, throwing to wind all social distancing and mask wearing norms, thronged the TASMAC shops least mindful of the scorching May summer. Hell broke loose in some areas as could be seen from newspaper reports and social media footages.”

Further the Court observing the State’s action, also stated that,

“It is indeed sad that in a welfare State, the Government wanted to cash in on the weakness of the tipplers by enhancing Excise Duty on liquor by 15%.”

Court also referred to the below stated news items:

“08.05.2020 (Page no.3):

An 18 year old girl who attempted suicide by immolating herself after her father picked up a quarrel under the influence of alcohol, is battling for her life in hospital.

08.05.2020 (page no.4):

3 dead in alcohol induced incidents

09.05.2020 (Page no.3):

Three people were murdered in alcohol-related incidents in Tuticorin, Virudhunagar and Tirunelveli on Thursday night”.

Division Bench of the Court with its Order dated 6th May, 2020 on noting the above incidents and concerns had decided to immediately close down all the TASMAC shops till lockdown was lifted by Government.

Veera Kathiravan placed the WHO guidelines with regard to Alcohol and Home Isolation or quarantine.

Additional Advocate General submitted that WHO guideline was issued to allay the notion prevailing in some quarters the consumption of liquor will protect one from COVID-19 attack.

For the above stated guideline, bench observed that the said guideline, categorically sets out the ill-effects of consumption of alcohol during COVID-19 pandemic.

Additional Advocate General further justified the State’s action on the following grounds:

  • COVID-19 pandemic is not going to abate in the near future and therefore, people cannot be kept in domestic imprisonment indefinitely;
  • economic activities have to be resumed;
  • the Central Government itself has permitted the operation of commercial activities, including liquor sale in a phased manner;
  • the loss of revenue per day to the State exchequer works out to not less than Rs.100 crores and that revenue is needed for fighting the scourge of COVID-19;
  • illicit liquor is being brewed;
  • people of this State are patronising wine shops that are open in the neighbouring States of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka; and
  • the policy decision of the State cannot be subject to judicial review.

For the above submission, Court stated that, they agree with the, same. Adding to this bench stated that

“on the one hand, the State wants its citizens to develop immunity by consuming Kabasura Kudineer and homeopathy medicines and on the other hand, wants to destroy the immunity by making liquor freely available to the public.”

Continuing with its observations, Court said that,

State was aware that due to lock down, the spread of COVID-19 was controlled in Chennai, but, one day’s re-opening of the Koyambedu vegetable market led to a huge spike in COVID-19 cases in the State. Perhaps, the maxim “Once bitten, twice shy”, seemingly, had little impact on the State.

Liquor shops that were opened in the neighbouring Kerala and far off Mumbai were closed down by those Governments to save human lives, but, alas, this State failed to learn any lesson.

Whatever gains we gathered, thanks to our citizens, who, unlike citizens of certain Western countries, wholeheartedly remained indoors, are bound to get dissipated with the re-opening of the TASMAC shops.

Right of the State to carry on liquor sales via TASMAC shops is not an absolute one, but only, a qualified one under Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution of India and when that right seeks to trample the right to life guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution of India, the former has to give way and remain subservient to the latter.

State cannot be permitted to hide behind the cloak of policy decision when its action is likely to kill people in droves.

A tippler may claim to have a right of self destruction, but, in that process, he cannot destroy others. It is like a person committing self immolation hugging his neighbour.

Not agreeing with State Government’s decision of re-opening the TASMAC shops, Court continued to say that,

When the Government had rightly prohibited entry into places of worship during the lock down period, its decision to allow tipplers to congregate before TASMAC shops, is indubitably antithetical.

Policy decision of the Government is not completely immune from judicial review, especially where it seeks to brazenly violate the fundamental right of the citizens guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution of India.

Thus, in complete agreement with the order of Division bench of the court passed on 8th May, 2020, it is directed to close down the TASMAC shops in the Same lines.[A. Bonyface v. Govt. of T.N., 2020 SCC OnLine Mad 983 , decided on 11-05-2020]

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