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Govt in dock again, this time for liquor

New Delhi, March 9: The Supreme Court today cancelled liquor licences issued by the Bengal government on three days in 2005 and just stopped short of sending four of its senior officials to jail for ignoring a Calcutta High Court stay.

“We should have sent them to jail but, considering their future, we have abstained from doing so,” a bench headed by Justice A.R. Lakshmanan said, cancelling all licences issued in North 24-Parganas on March 20, 21 and 23.

Barely a week ago, the high court had sentenced to jail four state officials, including its police chief, for the same offence — contempt of court — but in a different case. The officials, reluctant to clear the entrance to a district court despite the high court’s directive, had “butchered the Constitution”, the judges said.

The apex court today charged Raghabendra Singh, the then principal secretary of the excise department, and three other officials with “committing contempt of court” with “malicious intent”.

Some of the liquor outlets that got the permit in the three days could be in Salt Lake, where several have cropped up recently.

The government had gone ahead with the auctions, though the high court, hearing a petition challenging the validity of its 2004 liquor policy, had stayed the issue of licences till further orders.

However, the high court had dismissed the contempt petition filed by the All-Bengal Excise Licensees Association, which the apex court allowed today.

It was a “grave error” to absolve the officials who had gone ahead with the auctions, the apex court said.

The interim high court stay on the auctions had been ordered on a petition by the association challenging a government notification making population a parameter for the grant of licence, said advocate Chanchal Kumar Ganguly, the counsel for the liquor shop owners.

The government had de- cided to issue 1,000 licences across the state under the new policy of having one off shop for every 18,000 people, though the association contended that licences had to be granted strictly in accordance with the Excise Act.

The stay ordered in January 2005 was extended from time to time. But a final decision on the validity of the government’s liquor policy is yet to come.

The court absolved the officials of contempt charges after they contended that they had not violated its order wilfully. The association moved the apex court after that.

While issuing a notice on the appeal filed by the association on September 18, 2006, the apex court restrained the government from issuing licences but 17 of them were issued later on the same day.

With the court taking serious exception, the government told the court that it was willing to cancel these licences and suspended the permits immediately.

The court today ordered the government to file a compliance report after stopping the business forthwith in all the liquor shops that got their permits in March 2005.

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