Kerala Government may radically expand the number of liquor outlets in the state by tomorrow to prevent crowding at the existing outlets.
Kerala State Beverages Corporation, along with Kerala State Co-operatives Consumers’ Federation, has a legal monopoly over the retailing of liquor in Kerala.
However, with only around 300 outlets to serve a population of nearly 35 million, it is rare to find any liquor outlet without a long queue of customers in front. Customers often have to stand in line for 10-30 minutes to get their hands on a bottle.
While Keralites have grown used to such long queues over the past years, the outbreak of Coronavirus COVID-19 has raised concerns that BEVCO outlets may become hotspots of virus transmission due to these queues.
To mitigate this risk, the government is likely to allow bars — which have been shut as part of anti-COVID measures — to act as alternate liquor vending points, according to BEVCO sources.
According to current rules, bars are allowed to only ‘serve’ liquor, and not sell them by the bottle. While one can still buy an unopened bottle from a bar and take it home, taxes and service charges applied on such sales make them twice or thrice as expensive compared to those sourced from BEVCO outlets.
UPDATE: Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan clarified that liquor retailing does not come under ‘essential services’ and people should desist from going to liquor shops as long as the lockdown is in place.
Under the new plan, the government is likely to temporarily allow bars to dispense liquor over the counter at the same rates as BEVCO, and will apply only the same tax as for BEVCO sales.
A notification in this respect is expected as early as later today, according to sources.
The move is also likely to provide some financial relief for businessmen who bid astronomical sums for getting their annual bar licenses.
The current, enforced shutdown of bars is causing losses of hundreds of crores of rupees per day to the industry.
Kerala has two types of bar licenses — one that empowers the holder to serve beer and wine, and another that allows the establishment to serve any permitted liquor.
It is not yet clear whether beer and wine parlors will also be allowed to dispense bottles at the same rate as BEVCO outlets.
Meanwhile, facilities at the 300 or so BEVCO outlets have been overhauled to contain the crowds and limit chances of viral transmission.
Many BEVCO outlets have drawn lines at an interval of 1 meter each and are asking people to stand on these lines when queuing for alchohol.
Similarly, they have also appointed security staff to limit crowds and enforce discipline.
Nevertheless, consumers in the health-conscious state were worried about standing in line, prompting one of them to seek judicial intervention to make securing alcohol less life-threatening.
Last week, G Jyothish from Aluva near Kochi filed a petition with Kerala High Court asking it to direct the state government to put in place alternate mechanisms of liquor availability.
However, Justice A K Jayasankaran Nambiar dismissed the petition and imposed costs of Rs 50,000 on Jyothish, ruling that such petitions were increasing the court’s workload when it is functioning under a COVID-19-related emergency mode.