Explained: Delhi HC ruling on liquor shops and public sentiments

The Delhi High Court has ruled on petitions challenging the location of liquor vends in residential areas. What was the case, and what has the court said? Why was there controversy over the issue? What do the rules state? The Delhi High Court in a ruling has said that the public opposition to a liquor vend’s location cannot be the sole ground for cancellation of an excise licence. Public opinion or sentiment is not a factor relevant under the Delhi Excise Act for locating a liquor vend, said Justice Yashwant Varma while upholding the Financial Commissioner’s order on restoring licence to a restaurant in June 2019. Soon after the new liquor policy came into force in November last year, a number of petitions both by residents and licence holders reached the court in connection with the disputes over location of liquor vends. People also held protests against the location of liquor vends. In January 2018, the excise licence of 2 Bandits Restaurant was cancelled by the department of excise considering the apprehension of disturbance of law and order and public sentiments. The order on appeal was set aside by the Financial Commissioner in June 2019 and the licence of the restaurant was restored. The Department of Excise before the Delhi High Court last month challenged the restoration, saying it has ample powers under the Delhi Excise Act to cancel a licence for any reason whatsoever. Justice Varma said such a submission cannot be countenanced as the department has to act fairly and not whimsically. The grant of licence under the Act and rules is not subject to ‘public sentiment’, ruled the bench. “Unless the licence of the liquor vend is shown to fall foul of any statutory provision or otherwise established to be in violation of any rule or regulation, the same cannot possibly merit cancellation merely because “public sentiment” may be opposed to its location. Public opinion or sentiment is not a factor relevant or germane under the Act for locating a liquor vend,” said the bench. It also said that the apprehension of a law and order situation is clearly a different issue altogether, which must necessarily be looked into by the police authorities. The court dismissed the petition filed by the Department of Excise on day one of its hearing. The ruling is important in context of the controversy which erupts every time a liquor vend opens at a new place, especially around a residential area. When the Delhi government’s excise policy came into force last year and new vends opened for the first time in certain areas, residents approached the court stating the vends are located in residential areas or near religious places or schools. Some licensees also approached the court saying they were not being allowed to open their vends due to the public. The grievance of the residents’ welfare associations usually is that liquor shops attract bad elements who may quarrel with the residents. In some cases, it was also argued that women and children frequent the market or place where the liquor vend has been opened. While few of the cases are still pending, the court mostly either asked the government to take a decision on the representations of residents or directed the police to provide security to the vends. The ruling is important in context of the controversy which erupts every time a liquor vend opens at a new place, especially around a residential area. When the Delhi government’s excise policy came into force last year and new vends opened for the first time in certain areas, residents approached the court stating the vends are located in residential areas or near religious places or schools. Some licensees also approached the court saying they were not being allowed to open their vends due to the public. The grievance of the residents’ welfare associations usually is that liquor shops attract bad elements who may quarrel with the residents. In some cases, it was also argued that women and children frequent the market or place where the liquor vend has been opened. While few of the cases are still pending, the court mostly either asked the government to take a decision on the representations of residents or directed the police to provide security to the vends. The Delhi Excise Policy 2021-22 states that retail vends can be opened in any of the markets, malls, commercial roads/areas, local shopping complexes and other such places as long as the standard rules and regulations of opening a new vend are followed, particularly Rule 51 of the Delhi Excise Rules. Maintenance of law and order in the vicinity is an important parameter for the decision on renewal of the licence, as per the government policy. One of the conditions also states that the licensee will ensure no dry snacks or cooked food outlet gets opened right outside the shop as it may “encourage people to drink and loiter around the shop itself”. “Licensee shall be responsible for law and order and security around their shop. In case the shop causes nuisance for the neighbourhood and a complaint is received by the government, the licence of that particular vend will be cancelled,” the policy states.

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