In a much awaited decision, the Kerala High Court on Thursday granted partial clearance to the new abkari policy of the Kerala government, paving the way for the closure of all 2 star & 3 star bars in the state. It however allowed bars attached to four-star and heritage category hotels in the state to function. Justice K Surendra Mohan held that “the abkari policy, to the extent, it excludes hotels having four-star and heritage category hotels from the eligibility to be granted FL-3 licences under the Foreign Liquor Rules (FLR), is set aside, being arbitrary and violative of Article 14 of the Constitution. The consequential amendments to the FLR as well as the proceedings of the Excise Commissioner cancelling the licences of such hotels are also set aside.” The Bench also dismissed a petition filed by the bar owners an hour after the judgment seeking permission to allow them to function for two weeks. The court observed that the apex court had already permitted the bar owners to function till the High Court passes an order so there is no need to further extend the order.
Since the fate of both two and three-star hotels has been concluded by the Supreme Court in the Surendra Das case, the challenge against the exclusion can no longer survive. However, in the case of hotels with four star and heritage classification, there was absolutely no material to justify a conclusion that there were any complaints with respect to their functioning. The state submitted that it was decided that no new licences for three-star hotels would be permitted from March 31, 2012 onwards. It was its avowed policy to reduce liquor consumption in the state stage by stage and to achieve the goal of total prohibition within a 10-year span, the state submitted. As many as 250 bars will be shut down today as per the order in this regard.
Faced with the prospect of the immediate shutdown of their bar operations, three-star hotels in the state are likely to apply for four-star or five-star licences to stay in business. Following the Kerala High Court verdict on Thursday, only four-star, five-star and heritage restaurants could continue with their bar operations in the state. “There are about 262 three-star restaurants. Most, if not all, would apply for a four-star licence as there are only small differences between the two categories,” said Biju Ramesh, working president of the Kerala Bar Hotel Association. According to industry officials, the room size, bath room size prescribed by the Hotel & Restaurant Approval and Classification Committee India for both three-star and four-star restaurants are the same. The only major difference is in the air-conditoning facilities offered. While the rules prescribe air-conditioning facilities for common areas and passage ways for four-stars, these are not required for three-star restaurants.
“Air-conditioning facilities for common areas are not a big problem. To save their investments, bar owners would apply for four-star category licences,” said Ramesh. Jose Dominic, CEO of CGH Earth Group, said the group’s two resorts – the Brunton Boatyard and Marari Beach – are currently in the three-star category though the facilities are of the five-star level. “We would go for a five-star licence due to the new liquor policy,” Dominic said. They need to begin the process from the scratch. There could be new educational institutions or religious establishments that have come up within the prescribed limit from the time they first got the licence. The three-star hotels may first apply for a beer-and-wine parlour licence, which is allowed now under the rules.