The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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SC spanner in state's drink diet
- Toddy policy also under scanner

New Delhi/Calcutta, Aug. 29: The Supreme Court today stayed a state government announcement inviting applications for 1,000 liquor shop permits across the state.

The division bench of Justices Y.K. Sabharwal and H.K. Sema, which stayed the notification dated January 20, 2004, also issued notices to the Bengal government on a batch of petitions and a public interest litigation.

The All Bengal Excise Licensees Association and the North 24-Parganas Excise Licensees Association had moved the court against alleged violation of norms in the licensing process and one Shyamali Roy Mookherjee had filed the PIL seeking a direction to cancel fresh permits and quash the notification.

The advocate on record for the petitioners, Chanchal Ganguly, said licences were issued 'arbitrarily violating all norms and the law' to 'pacify' people who were beneficiaries of the government order.

The government had said that 'new shops could be settled through lottery' and that 'lists (of new licensees) have been received from all districts' and that it would follow the formula of one shop for a population of 18,000.

State excise minister Prabodh Kumar Sinha said tonight that not a single fresh licence was issued during 2004-05 because of the court cases. 'We had planned to issue 1,000 fresh licences across Bengal, of which 300 were meant for Calcutta,' he added.

According to the minister, the excise department has held a string of lotteries since 2001 to issue liquor licences, but could not grant any one of them because of legal proceedings. 'We had planned to collect Rs 700 crore a year by issuing fresh licences,' Sinha said.

In March 2005, a single-judge bench of Calcutta High Court ordered that the licences 'cannot be granted in terms of the circular dated 20.1.2004'.

Today, the Supreme Court reiterated the decision of the single judge and said the petitions would be listed along with the PIL for hearings. They would be heard on September 7.

On December 7, 2004, the government issued a memo to all district magistrates and collectors to issue 'supplementary country spirit licences' to the existing toddy shop owners.

Ganguly said this was to 'circumvent' the high court order stopping the government from issuing new licences for IMFL shops in both urban and rural areas. These country liquor licences have also now come under Supreme Court scrutiny.

Sinha said the government was keen on issuing fresh liquor licences for two reasons. First, the excise department wants to put a curb on sale of illicit liquor and second, to increase the government's revenue earnings.

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