The Madras High Court on 8 May directed the State Government to close all 3,850 liquor shops run by TASMAC (Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation) till lifting of the lockdown for failure to observe the lockdown rules regarding social distancing. Shops were opened in Chennai city on 8 May and in other districts in Tamil Nadu a day earlier. The court reversed its order of 6 May to reopen liquor shops which were closed when lockdown was first clamped.
However, the court order permitted introduction of online sale and home delivery of liquor and employment of contractual employees of TASMAC for the purpose. Some other States – AP, Chhattisgarh, and West Bengal – had already started the system of home delivery. Maharashtra is selling liquor exclusively online. The judges were appalled at the crowd in the shops and complete breakdown of lockdown norms. They observed that, “what worries this court is this mad rush for liquor will only lead to new clusters as opined by epidemiologists and public health experts”.
Opening liquor shops is presently considered only in the light of chances for emergence of a new COVID-19 cluster of liquor patrons and violations of lockdown norms. Only two days earlier, the court refused to stay reopening of the shops on the principle that courts cannot interfere in policy decisions of the government. The principle had to be given up because of the unruly behaviour of the customers and utter failure of lockdown. Increasing cases of domestic violence due to compulsory “stay at home” were pointed out by the Bench in this connection to emphasise the need for keeping liquor shops closed.
The order is on the lines of that of Supreme Court on the same day refusing to allow a PIL seeking ban on sale of liquor for breaching social distancing norms and instead suggesting home delivery or indirect sale of liquor. Tamil Nadu government has appealed to the apex court.
The most important relaxation allowed after the end of the second phase of lockdown on 3 May – if press reports can be taken as an indication – seems to be the opening of liquor shops which were closed with COVID-19 lockdown in non-containment areas in all zones. Reopening of shops was allowed after ensuring 6 feet social distancing, and allowing not more than five persons at a time in the shop. Bars were not allowed. The relaxation was obviously made in response to the demand of several State governments. The subject of intoxicating liquors falls in the State List of powers.
The mad rush of customers at liquor shops across the country pushed sales to an unbelievable extent raising hopes of recovery from financial losses due to lockdown for the governments in particular. Liquor made the addicts forget even the coronavirus surrounding them. Reopening of liquor shops seems to have satisfied the longing for freedom of sizeable sections of population forced to stay at home, but it opened the danger of a new cluster taking shape like the wholesale market at Koyambedu in Chennai which suddenly turned out to be a super-spreader of the deadly infection in and around the State.
Liquor is one of the most contentious issues in listing open and closed items in the different zones during lockdown. It is also concerned with health and disease apart from business revenue. Liquor trade, both by its presence and absence, creates law and order problems. When the trade is banned, there is spike in smuggling and illegal hooch industry and spurious drugs come to the rescue of addicts in many States. Liquor mafia comes into operation in far flung areas increasing the problems of the police. Liquor theft becomes common and black marketing thrives.
Rush of customers was seen in all States when liquor was removed from the list of prohibited items under lockdown in all zones – red, orange, and green except in containment areas. In Mumbai, shops had to be closed as customers ignored physical distancing. Liquor sales in Karnataka registered an all time record despite heavy hike in excise duty. AP raised the prices of liquor.
On the reopening day, it is reported that a record sale for Rs.175 crore took place in Tamil Nadu. The machinery for controlling law and order and for enforcing lockdown regulations miserably failed. It is hard to believe that it was not anticipated.
Do all people agree to disregard lockdown and risk contracting the deadly disease to satisfy the thirst for drinks of some people? Can drink lovers force their preference on others to nullify the effect of social distancing practiced by others? Will the law enforcing authorities confess their inability to maintain lockdown regulations blatantly broken by alcohol addicts? Will the government bear responsibility for loosening restrictions and inviting virus for the sake of filling its treasury?
Rajnikanth, the new face in Tamil Nadu politics, lamented over the decision of the government to reopen liquor shops and made a remark that the party in power “can forget coming back to power”. Opposition parties in Tamil Nadu including those instrumental in lifting prohibition in 1970s and even some of the allies of the ruling party — the DMK, BJP, PMK, DMDK, MDMK, Congress — united to criticise the government for reopening liquor shops while fighting a pandemic.
Ultimately, the loss of revenue seems to be the crucial element in government decision for opening liquor shops in any State. In Tamil Nadu, the total revenue from liquor sales in 2019-20 was over Rs.31,000 crore. It is indeed a “cash cow” worshipped in financial circles.
Liquor, like water, can flow from the place of plenty to scarcity areas. A common argument against prohibition is that it cannot succeed in a State when liquor is available in other States. So also, zone-wise rules cannot work when “mad rush” is the rule. The over-worked police will not be able to control the surging crowd; nor is it fair on the part of the government to entrust such an unnecessary and huge load after opening the gates for violation of lockdown.
The Government of Tamil Nadu can ignore the couplet in Tirukural which depicts the habit of drinking liquor as a “mighty, despised sin of endless woes”, but cannot escape the feeling of hypocrisy in issuing Policy Notes of the Prohibition Department on government paper bearing Tiruvalluvar picture – a sad irony.
In India, only five States – Bihar, Gujarat, Lakshadweep, Mizoram, and Nagaland have prohibition laws. Gujarat law provides for death penalty for manufacturing and sale of home- made liquor that causes fatalities. Article 47 of the Constitution which says that “The State shall endeavour to bring about prohibition of consumption except for medicinal purposes of intoxicating drinks and of drugs which are injurious to health” has been thrown in the dustbin long time back. State trading in liquor goes on in many States.
The haste and eagerness with which liquor shops are opened in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere is a crude manifestation of an unsocial longing for freedom from the fetters of lockdown imposed in public interest.