The conflict between fiscal health and public health is quite real for the States. Faced with dwindling revenue due to the stagnation in economic activity since the national lockdown began, States are desperate to raise money to combat disease spread and to keep their public health services going. It is this desperation that led Tamil Nadu to rush to the Supreme Court to obtain a stay on a Madras High Court order barring the sale of liquor through its retail stores and mandating online sales alone. The top court seems to be mindful of the need to preserve the policy space of States, reflected in its various interim orders declining to stop liquor sales. In one case, it refused a blanket stay on opening liquor shops; in another it suggested online sale and home delivery, but did not want to impose the option on any government. In TN’s case, it has stayed the HC order, paving the way for resumption of sales through outlets of the State-run TASMAC. The Madras High Court initially allowed the State government to open its vast network of liquor shops, subject to several conditions for maintaining physical distancing. However, the State witnessed appalling scenes of unmanageable crowds and serpentine queues when shops re-opened on May 7. As there was overwhelming evidence that physical distancing had been given the go-by, the HC banned across-the-counter sales, and directed that only online sale be permitted.
Popular opinion in TN does not seem to favour the resumption of liquor sales at a time when the number of people testing positive for the novel coronavirus is spiralling. Even those who have no moral objection to liquor consumption would endorse regulations on physical sale, given the great danger of the infection spreading fast. TN is reeling under the effect of a cluster traced to Chennai city’s huge wholesale vegetable and fruit market, with the total infection count rising in thousands in recent days. The State government’s argument that the HC ought not to have interfered in a policy matter may be sound, and obviously impressed the Supreme Court. However, its claim that online sale is not possible in a State like Tamil Nadu does not really ring true. The reality is that selling liquor online would cut into the unaccounted extra fee that TASMAC staff charge for every purchase. At ₹5 to ₹10 for each sale, this amount runs into crores of rupees annually and is believed to be shared among vested interests. None can realistically discount the possibility that reopening TASMAC outlets may lead to another infection spiral. Now that it has fought bitterly, even at the cost of making a highly contentious decision, to get liquor sales going, the State government has to live up to its promise of preventing overcrowding in the vicinity of its outlets.