A day after a two-judge bench of the High Court sought an explanation from the excise commissioner for the overcrowding in front of BEVCO outlets, yet another High Court judge had expressed serious misgivings about the long queues in front of liquor outlets.
"When only 10 people are allowed for funerals and 20 for marriages, there is a group fight in front of liquor outlets," Justice Devan Ramachandran said on Thursday with the excise commissioner and the Beverages Corporation (BEVCO) MD participating through video conference.
It was Justice Devan Ramachandran's letter to the High Court on July 2, which had photographs attached of long queues in front of government-run liquor outlets during COVID-19, that had prompted the two-judge bench of Chief Justice S Manikumar and Justice Shaji P Chaly to register a suo motu public interest litigation in the case. The pictures sent by Justice Devan Ramachandran show the absence of social distancing in front of these outlets, and reveal that some of these outlets are near residential areas.
In its interim order on July 7, the two-judge bench had taken the Kerala Government to task. "Government, on the one hand, is trying to reduce the number of Covid cases, by taking appropriate measures, vaccination, etc. Simultaneously, crowding at public places should not be allowed, more particularly, in liquor shops. Health is more important than revenue."
There was a reason why the Court hinted that the Kerala government was more concerned about revenue maximisation than COVID-19 containment. In an order issued on June 16, the Government had increased the profit margin of Beverages Corporation when it sold liquor to bar hotels and licensees and also to the Consumerfed. In protest, bar owners stopped the sale of liquor. This resulted in the entire liquor sales getting shifted to BEVCO outlets, causing long, at times unmanageable, queues.
The government had issued detailed COVID-19 protocols for these outlets, including circles for customers one metre apart. The Court, however, observed that these protocols were mostly violated. Worse still, these violations were not acted upon.
"Even though, periodical orders are issued by the Central and State Governments regarding Covid protocol guidelines, they do not seem to be observed in letter and spirit at some places, particularly liquor shops. It is clearly mentioned in the above orders that any lapse in following the restrictions would be viewed seriously. But we find that no action is taken against the defaulters so far," the two-judge bench said on July 7.
The Bench had also sought a detailed report from the State government on its failure to observe COVID protocol in the shops.