New Delhi, Oct. 22: A government contract on booze shops has turned out to be cast in stone sturdier than a defence that the outlets could not be set up because of popular reverence for some of the greatest names associated with Hinduism and Christianity.
The Supreme Court today upheld a Kerala government decision to forfeit the security deposit of over Rs 7 lakh made by a woman who could not open liquor vends in and around Kalady, the birthplace of Adi Sankaracharya, nearly 20 years ago.
Kalady is also 10km from the Malayattoor Church, where St. Thomas, one of the 12 Apostles of Jesus Christ, was believed to have prayed. The central Kerala church has been designated by the Vatican as one of its eight international shrines in the world.
The woman, who has been identified only as Mary, pleaded that a popular backlash against the plan to open vends to sell arrack prevented her from discharging the contractual obligation.
In a twist of irony, a few years after the deal was signed, arrack was banned in Kerala by A.K. Antony, then chief minister and now the defence minister of the country. The ban was seen as an attempt to woo women, who continue to be tormented by alcoholism among men who queue up for state-peddled Indian-made foreign liquor and toddy and fill the coffers of the government.
But the forfeiture case progressed from court to court. The two-decade-long legal battle ended today after the Supreme Court upheld the state government’s decision not to refund the deposit on the grounds of breach of contract.
“We are of the opinion that in a contract under the Abkari Act and the rules made thereunder, the licensee undertakes to abide by the terms… and in such a situation, the licensee cannot invoke the doctrine of fairness or reasonableness.
“Hence, we negative the contention of the appellant. In the result, we do not find any merit in the appeal and it is dismissed accordingly,” a bench of Justices C.K. Prasad and Y. Gopala Gowda said.
A Kerala High Court division bench had set aside the order of a single judge who had directed the state to refund the Rs 768,600 deposit with interest.
Mary was a successful bidder in an auction conducted on March 24, 1994, for vending arrack in shops No. 47 to 55 and 57 in Kalady Range–III for a year. Her bid was for Rs 2,562,000 and she was asked to deposit 30 per cent as security deposit.
But Mary faced stiff resistance from the residents. Kalady derives its very name from an episode associated with the legend of a young Sankara. Folklore has it that moved by the prayers of the boy who was in distress when his mother fainted after walking long to fetch water, Lord Krishna changed the course of the river to where Sankara’s little footprint was seen. The word “kalady” in Malayalam means footprint.
A popular site that has caught the imagination of some pilgrims is Muthala Kadavu or Crocodile Ghat. According to legend, a crocodile caught hold of Sankara’s leg in the river and he told his mother, who was not keen on her son becoming a sanyasi, that her concurrence would save him. The helpless mother agreed and Sankara, in his short life of 32 years, went on to consolidate the doctrine of Advaita (non-dualism) Vedanta.
Kalady now houses a Sanskrit university named after the Adi Sankaracharya. Kalady also has a prayer hall and shrine modelled on the Sri Ramakrishna temple at Belur Math.
It was not clear how close the arrack outlets would have been to the Malayattoor Church. But Christian priests had been at the forefront of the campaign to protect families from the curse of alcoholism. Arrack was the most destructive among the alcoholic brews as its victims were among the poorest of the poor.
As the residents mounted physical resistance and police could not ensure the smooth functioning of the outlets, Mary decided not to open shop.
But the authorities said Mary would forfeit her security deposit on grounds of breach of contract as she had failed to set up the shops and pay the remaining sum.
Rejecting Mary’s plea that the circumstances were beyond her control, the apex court concurred with the division bench ruling that there was a breach of contract and that the act clearly stipulated that in the event of non-fulfilment of the contract, the security amount can be forfeited. Therefore, there was nothing wrong with the decision of the authorities.
“It appears to us that the state was helpless because of the public upsurge against the sale of arrack at Kalady, the birthplace of the Adi Sankaracharya as, in their opinion, the same will render the soil unholy. Consequently, the state also found it impossible to re-sell or re-dispose of the arrack shops,” the bench said.