The Supreme Court on Friday allowed Tamil Nadu government to devise methods to sell liquor online or through physical sales saying it is not for the court to lay down norms, as how the liquor is to be sold.
The top court agreed with the contention of state government's firm, Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation (TASMAC), which sells alcoholic beverages in the state, that it cannot be instructed to sell liquor only through online and home deliveries.
A bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan, Sanjay Kishan Kaul and M R Shah asked TASMAC to file affidavit within three weeks about the mechanism of sale of liquor in shops.
On May 15, the top court had paved the way for reopening of state-owned liquor vends in Tamil Nadu by staying a Madras High Court order which had ordered their closure for the time being on the ground that there was violation of guidelines, such as social distancing, meant to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.
It had stayed the May 8 order of the High Court after taking note of the appeal of state government's firm.
The TASMAC had contended that the High Court should not have imposed its own conditions for sale of liquor by entering into the state's domain of policy making.
It had argued that it was state's prerogative to decide how to conduct sale of liquor and contended that High Court cannot decide the mode of selling.
The Tamil Nadu government on May 8 had moved the top court challenging the High Court order saying that the closure of such shops would lead to "grave losses" in state's revenue and complete halt in commercial activities.
The High Court had ordered closure of liquor outlets noting that there were huge crowds and no social distancing was being maintained by tipplers. It, however, had allowed doorstep delivery of booze through online mode.
The state government firm, in its appeal, termed the High Court order a case of "judicial overreach" and said online sale and home delivery of alcohol were not possible in the entire state.
"It is pertinent that online modes of effective liquor sales are not even available in the vast majority of state at present and can only be implemented after following the due procedures under law," TASMAC said in the appeal.
"It is pertinent that in the state of Tamil Nadu all liquor retail is owned and operated by TASMAC thus the net effect of the High Court's order is complete and indefinite standstill of the sale of liquor in the state leading to grave losses to the state's revenue and commercial activity in the state," the plea said.
TASMAC said that there was as many as 10 PILs pending in the High Court on the issue and it has "reasons to believe that the entire batch of writ Petitions if not some have been filed by vested private interest, so as to make enormous commercial gains, from the unfortunate situation."
The state government firm referred to the apex court's observation in which it had asked states to consider non-direct contact or online sales and home delivery of liquor during the lockdown period to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Some of the petitioners, on whose plea the HC ordered closure of liquor vends in the state, has also moved the apex court by filing caveat to ensure that they be also heard if the top court passes any order on the plea of TASMAC.
The high court order restraining sale of liquor off the counters was passed on a petition filed by advocate G Rajesh, besides a plaint from the actor Kamal Haasan-led Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM).
The High Court had said there was total violation of its interim order, when it declined to stay a government order allowing resumption of sale of liquor through outlets.
After a dry spell of 43 days due to the COVID-19 lockdown since late March, liquor sales resumed at TASMAC outlets in Tamil Nadu, except state capital Chennai, on May 7.
Heavy rush was witnessed at most places with people standing in serpentine queues even as the move to allow sale of liquor came in for flak from opposition parties and others, who raised apprehensions that it would lead to further spread of the novel coronavirus, which as of May 8 has affected over 6,000 people in the state.
Tamil Nadu had decided to open retail liquor outlets, citing relaxation of lockdown norms by the central government. Tipplers in border districts of the state were also making a beeline to neighbouring Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka where liquor sales resumed on May 4.