In a major decision, the Madras High Court has directed Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation (Tasmac) to close down all the “so-called bars” attached to the retail liquor shops, spread across the State, within six months. The court held that purchasers of liquor from the retail shops can consume it only at the recesses of their homes or in any other private space.
Justice C. Saravanan said, the Tamil Nadu Prohibition Act of 1937 does not permit Tasmac to encourage consumption of liquor in places adjoining the liquor shops by granting licence to private individuals to sell snacks and collect empty bottles. He said Tasmac has no legal control over these “bars” because they were leased by the private licensees.
The judge pointed out that the amendments made in 2003 to the 1937 Act permit Tasmac to only have a monopoly over wholesale and retail sale of liquor in the State. They do not permit the corporation to run “bars” either directly or indirectly since the power to grant licence for running bars rests only with the Commissioner of Prohibition and Excise.
Explaining the business model in vogue, the judge said Tasmac only takes the retail liquor shop premises on lease. The owners of those premises, which sometimes happen to be the civic bodies, develop the adjacent area for being used as a “bar” and lease it out to private individuals who obtain licence to sell snacks and collect empty liquor bottles.
Holding that such a practice does not have the sanction of law, the judge said it could also not be permitted as long as Section 4A of the 1937 Act remains in the statue book. The section states that a person found in a state of intoxication in a public place could be imprisoned for three months or imposed with a fine of ₹1,000 or both.
“If the Act does not permit a person to be in a state of intoxication in a public place, Tasmac cannot be seen permitting consumption of liquor in such places. Even if the bar is not a public place, a person after consuming liquor will have to necessarily pass through public places. Therefore, what Tasmac cannot do directly, it cannot do indirectly too,” the judge wrote.
The verdict was delivered while dismissing a batch of writ petitions filed by the “bar” licensees for 2019-2021. They had approached the court complaining that they could not do business for about 15 months since the liquor shops were closed during the lockdown. Hence, they insisted upon extending their licence period and also alleged discrimination in issuance of new licences.
Apart from rejecting their plea, the judge directed Tasmac to recall all tenders that had been issued for grant of licences to collect empty bottles and sell snacks in the bars. He also granted six months’ time to close down the bars to which licences had already been issued. “Commercial expediency to garner profit cannot justify the continuance of the bars,” he said.
Recalling the history of the law on prohibition, the judge said, consumption of liquor for pleasure appeared to be an accepted norm in the bygone era as per ancient literature. However, Thirukkural contains verses against it. Similarly, Mahatma Gandhi too was against intoxication. “Thus, there is a mixed history. In the ancient times, consumption of intoxicating drinks was an accepted norm. However, over a period of time, taboo has been associated with it,” he wrote.
The Madras Prohibition Act of 1937, subsequently renamed as the Tamil Nadu Prohibition Act, was enacted even before Independence, due to the ills, social menace and deleterious impact of liquor on society. “Ironically, today there is no prohibition against consumption. On the other hand, there is regulation of manufacture, sale and consumption of liquor and intoxicating drinks in the State,” he lamented.