Online Sale of Liquor: Legal Angle


INTRODUCTION

The outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has created a worldwide health crisis that has had a deep impact on our everyday lives. Not only does the speed of contagion and the pattern of transmission threaten our sense of agency, but the security measures put in place to contain the spread of the virus also require social distancing. Individuals are being forced to refrain from doing what's inherently human; which is to seek out solace within the company of others.

The public interest litigation, filed by Sai Deepak, looked forward to the directions for the closing of liquor shops. This led to the failure of the norm of social distancing, which is crucial to stop the spread of the virus. The petitioner told the apex court that he did not want people to get affected due to crowding at liquor shops during COVID-19. A bench consisting of Justice Ashok Bhushan refused to pass orders on public interest litigations (PIL) seeking clarity on the sale of liquor and to make sure social distancing measures are upheld in liquor shops during the lockdown. “We won't pass any order but the states should consider indirect sale/home delivery of liquor to keep up social distancing norms and standards,” Justice Ashok Bhushan said while getting rid of the petition.


REASON BEHIND THIS DEVELOPMENT

On 1 May 2020, The Union Ministry of Home Affairs declared a restricted lockdown which classified and bifurcated the districts into ‘Red’, ‘Orange’ and ‘Green’ zones based on COVID-19 risk-profiling. The sale of liquor and tobacco products were allowed in some areas after ensuring a minimum six-feet social distance. Mr Nataraj, through his counsel Sai Deepak and Anindita Mitra, said that there were 70,000 liquor vends across the country and over five crore people purchasing liquor from these shops. Furthermore, he claimed that there had been a palpable rise in COVID-19 cases since the opening up of liquor vends and shops. Mr Deepak argued that nationwide lockdown had blunted the virus graph, but the decision to restart liquor sales would retard the struggle against the spread of infection. He had sought the issuance of a fresh order to prohibit the sale of liquor at vends and shops through direct contact during the lockdown period or till the National Disaster Management Authority announced India to be out of the grip of the contagion.


LEGAL PROVISIONS REGARDING IT

PANDEMIC OPENS THE DOOR FOR HOME DELIVERY OF ALCOHOL

At the moment, there is no clear policy that governs home delivery of alcohol because it is a state subject. Experts suggest home delivery of liquor is a key step in easing overcrowding and ensuring social distancing during the pandemic. At least three states have allowed the home delivery of liquor after witnessing crowds and lengthy queues upon reopening after 40 days.

Despite taboos around alcohol, India remains among the world’s largest consumers of liquor. At present, the governments of Punjab, Chhattisgarh, and West Bengal have permitted the online sale of liquor, in what appears to be a big leap for a country where states such as Bihar, Gujarat, Mizoram, and Nagaland, as well as the Union territory of Lakshadweep have banned the sale of alcohol. According to Pulkit Sharma, a clinical psychologist, official permission to sell liquor and the long queues outside stores have largely legitimised the fact that liquor is very much a part of life in India. Home delivery further legitimises drinking in a country that has traditionally looked down on it. However, Santosh Desai, Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer at Futurebrands India and an expert on consumer behaviour, doesn’t think stigma will go away as a result of this measure. “It is deeply entrenched," he said. Online liquor sales come at a time when the government has been squeezed for revenues given the economic slowdown owing to the COVID-19 outbreak. Tax on liquor seems like a low hanging fruit for state governments to garner revenue, which has dried up. The sector contributes roughly ₹2.5 trillion in taxes earned by states every year. However, the increased taxes and delivery fee will ensure that only the rich and upper-middle classes can afford to get liquor delivered to their homes. This would certainly bring down overcrowding problems across shops.

SUPREME COURT ASKS STATES TO CONSIDER ONLINE SALE OF LIQUOR

The Supreme Court’s decision on Friday allowed the States to consider and go for online sales and home delivery of liquor during the lockdown period to facilitate the norm of social distancing. A three-judge bench left it to the discretion of the state governments to provide and adopt a mechanism for online buying and home delivery of liquor. “It shall be open for the concerned State Government to consider non-direct sale including online sale and home delivery of liquor to facilitate social distancing,” the Supreme Court ordered in a petition filed by Guruswamy Nataraj.

As stated earlier, there are 70,000 liquor vends across the country and over five crore people who purchase liquor from these shops. While there has been a palpable rise in COVID-19 cases since the opening of liquor vends and shops, it is also argued that the nationwide lockdown resulted in the blunting of the virus graph. Therefore, issuance of a fresh order to prohibit the sale of liquor at vends and shops through direct contact during the lockdown period or till the National Disaster Management Authority announced India to be out of the grip of the contagion, is required.


SUPREME COURT ALLOWING INITIATING OF ONLINE SALES AND HOME DELIVERY OF LIQUOR

The view that states should consider its online sale or home delivery in keeping with social distancing norms, the Supreme Court on Friday refused to stop the sale of liquor across the country. This observation by the court was based on a public interest litigation filed by a citizen called Guruswamy Nataraj. He wanted a stay order on the notification issues on the 1st of May by the Centre and allowed liquor vends and shops to open from the 4th of May. This notification was merely a threat to public health. Social distancing was completely ignored at some of these vends and unmanageable crowds were seen. Moreover, in places like Delhi, Rajasthan, Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh, police had to issue a lathi charge. Advocate J Sai Deepak Argued and told the bench that direct contact sale of liquor must be stopped. In a situation of absolute necessity, the Centre must consider changing its decision and to permit the online sale of liquor.

The bench consisting of justices Ashok Bhushan, SK Kaul and BR Gavai observed the merit in the suggestion in providing liquor online, but felt that this decision should rest with the states and not be entertained by the Centre. Chhattisgarh started its online sales, Punjab arranged for home delivery of alcoholic beverages, the option of online sale was provided by the Delhi government and Karnataka undertook this on an experimental basis. Sai Deepak the council told the bench that a uniform directive must come from the Centre as an entire country under lockdown cannot afford to avoid social distancing. This would lead to negating the effect of a complete lockdown which is aiming at flattening the curve of the coronavirus disease, he argued. Tushar Mehta Solicitor General, was present during the hearing conducted through video conferencing as well. As per him, the decision of the Centre will not restrict states from leaning towards the online sales. After this hearing the bench noted in its order, allowing concerned state government to consider non-direct sale including online sale or home delivery of liquor to facilitate social distancing. States have resorted to levying additional taxes as high as 70% on the sale of liquor but this has hardly affected the demand. The petitioner informed the court that there are only 70,000 licensed liquor vends in the country, which can hardly meet the demand. However, the court felt that any decision on the sale of liquor lay exclusively within the policy domain of the governments and for this reason, it refused to tie the Centre’s hands.


CONCLUSION

All in all, alcohol is not an ordinary commodity. It carries connotations of pleasure and sociability in the minds of many. Moreover, the harmful consequences of its use are diverse and widespread as well. The global perspective is, however, to reduce the harm caused by alcohol. To achieve this, policies are needed to take into account specific situations in different societies. To avoid the combination of drinking and driving is an example of measures that can lower and reduce the health risk of alcohol.

Alcohol takes an enormous toll on lives and communities worldwide, especially in developing countries with its contribution to the overall burden of disease is expected to increase in the future. Particularly worrying trends are the increases in the average amount of alcohol consumed per person in countries such as China and India and the more harmful and risky drinking patterns among young people. The need now is to develop national monitoring systems to keep track of alcohol consumption and its consequences and to raise awareness amongst the public as well as the policy-makers. All this is in the hands of both the government and its concerned citizens to encourage and formulate effective public health policies that will help in minimizing the harm caused by alcohol. It is now the responsibility of governments to effectively reduce the harm in both social aspects and health and the consequences stemming from alcohol consumption requires a lot of preparation and planning.

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