On February 17, 2018, around 30 people gathered at the Chromepet bus stand to protest against the opening of a proposed new Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation Limited (TASMAC) outlet cum bar. The shop is set to be established on a narrow lane by the foot-over bridge on Grand Southern Trunk (GST) road.
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The locality is surrounded by a thickly-populated, commercial and residential area, thronged by lakhs of people every day. In addition, the shop is in the vicinity of several educational institutions, the Chromepet bus stand and a foot-over bridge that leads to the railway station. Given the scenario, opening a TASMAC shop cum bar in such a place could definitely stand as a menace for passers-by as well as other shops. The protestors together voiced their reservations and apprehensions of the knock-on effect that a TASMAC outlet could have on the locality.
“The presence of TASMAC would induce unintentional ruckus, no one can say whether a tippler is just casually observing or staring at people. Since it is located on a main road, it could also lead to to drunken-driving and increase in crime rate. Vehicle parking would be the primary inconvenience caused to the shops located nearby and passers-by as there is practically no space,” said David Manohar, an activist and a Chromepet resident.
David adds, “The authorities are doing it surreptitiously as the residents would never allow a TASMAC outlet in such a space. The TASMAC shop is set to come up in place of a garments store, and all the material required to alter the place has been kept ready. It doesn’t take much time to open an outlet and bar, all it needs is a bit of arrangement and it is set!”
Unfortunately, the angst of the protestors was not heard by the government authorities and local police station. When the protesters met the Inspector of the S13 Chromepet Police station, he dismissed the allegations and said that he had not received any information with regard to the setting-up of a TASMAC cum bar.
TASMAC: A timeline of recent developments
It is well-known that Tamil Nadu generates a huge amount of revenue through the TASMAC shops. The Supreme Court order, late in December 2016 created a huge furore in the country and Tamil Nadu was no exception.
December 15, 2016: The Supreme Court ordered the closure of liquor vendors falling within 500 metres of state and national highways by April 1, 2017. The order further clarified that hotels and restaurants operating on highways must stop serving alcohol.
The state then appealed to the Supreme Court which was rejected, with the rejoinder that the deadline had been fixed with the consent of TASMAC. Following the order, the state shut all the TASMAC outlets working on the arterial roads and the hotels and restaurants on the highways stopped selling alcohol.
April 1, 2017: 3300 TASMAC outlets were closed in the state, among which 2500 shops were reopened or relocated on the same day as the deadline. Around 100 liquor shops were closed in Chennai and its suburbs. The revenue was calculated to Rs 26,995.25 crore in 2016 – 2017 against the sales in 2015 – 2016 which stood at Rs 25,845.58 crore.
April 21, 2017: The Commissioner of Municipal Administration (CMA) passed an order notifying that the maintenance of certain roads falling under state purview would now be shifted to the respective local bodies. The order was said to have been passed to get the repair work done immediately.
However, it was suspected that the order was merely an attempt to let the TASMAC shops continue business, since once the roads are brought under the local government, they would lose highway status and hence no longer be mandated to follow the apex court order.
April 25, 2017: Following this, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the Advocates Forum for Social Justice appealed to the Madras High Court (MHC) seeking an intervention on the Commissioner’s order.
The Court ordered an interim stay for opening/relocating/establishing liquor outlets along the state highways for three months or till further directions. It further affirmed that the process of conversion of roads to municipal roads could continue, with the condition that TASMACs remain closed.
The Madras High Court also passed an order preventing the state government from relocating the liquor shops to residential neighbourhoods. The order came as a response to protests by many distraught women, who pointed to the consequences that such a move could create.
September 1, 2017: The commissioner of prohibition and excise issued an order to the district collectors in Tamil Nadu allowing the re-opening of bars and clubs situated within the municipal bounds.
November 2017: The Advocates’ Forum for Social Justice filed a PIL on the above order issued by the commissioner of prohibition and excise. The petitioner expressed the misinterpretation by the central excise department of the Supreme Court’s order. Hearing the case, the Madras High Court directed the state not to open any new outlets along the highways even if it falls within municipal boundaries.
“We were notified that the order is inapplicable to the shops falling within municipal limits and there are also plans to reopen the 300 shops that were closed in April 2017,” said Jayakumar, General Secretary, AITUC.
December 2017: The TASMAC management hiked the deposit for renewing the license of the outlets from 2.5% to 3% late last year. The hike attracted the wrath of the owners resulting in the closure of the shops, in a bid to pressure the government into reducing the deposit.
February 2018: The Supreme Court passed an order empowering the state to decide on serving alcohol in hotels situated along highways in suburbs.
A current and ongoing struggle
While all this has been going on, residents of Perambur have been fighting to get rid of a cluster of three TASMAC shops and bars, since even before the Supreme Court order was passed. The struggle began late in the month of May in 2016 and it is still on.
The three shops are located within a stretch of 75 to 100 mts, on the High Road right opposite the Perambur Railway Station, adjacent to residential colonies and very close to the bus stop. Two of these shops share their compound with residential houses and the residents in the neighbourhood have been forced to put up with all sorts of problems for several years now. One of the bars of the outlet located next to Adyar Ananda Bhavan operates alfresco, which is against law.
The Madras High Court has clearly directed the state to remove outlets operating in residential areas. Yet, the problem persists. The tipplers cause nuisance day in and day out. Due to severe pressure from the residents’ end, the authorities placed a Police Patrol Patta Book in one of the houses and a Beat Patrol Officer signs it on a daily basis.
“But there are times when this is stopped without any notice or explanation; only after the issue is escalated to higher officials, is the practice restored. Nothing has changed despite filing several petitions. Our personal meetings with the Deputy Collector of TASMAC, DM, Chennai North did not yield any positive results,” says a distressed Raghukumar Choodamani, resident of Perambur.
“We have filed several petitions and only received contradictory feedback from the administration, which illustrates that they are not serious about the promises made during the last Assembly elections,” adds Raghukumar.
Rule 8 (1) of the Tamilnadu Retail Vending of Liquor (in Shops Bars) Rules, 2003 mandates that a TASMAC outlet should not be instituted in Corporations and Municipalities within a distance of 50 metres, and in other areas within 100 metres, from any place of worship or educational institutions.
It is also stated that the law shall not be valid if any educational institution or any place of worship comes up after the establishment of a TASMAC outlet.
However, it further states that the distance restriction does not apply to the Commercial or Industrial areas that is marked by the Development or Town Planning Authorities.
It is mandated that the shop cannot be located within the premises of hotels.
The location of a shop can only be approved by the district collector prior to its establishment. Rule (9) further states that the shop can be shifted only with permission from the collector.
The law also lays down the specifications for a bar: it has to be located inside the TASMAC or adjoin it, the plinth area must be at least 10 sq. m. Drinking water, wash basin and surroundings must be clean, hygienic and well-lit.
Rule 10 (3) makes it mandatory for every shop or bar be housed in a Pucca Building and no part of it should be thatched. The bar should be sufficiently screened so that the consumption of liquor is not visible to the public. Gambling or any kind of disorderly conduct is prohibited.
TASMAC outlets can function only between 08.00 a.m. and 12 midnight and must observe holidays on occasions such as Thiruvalluvar Day, Gandhi Jayanthi, etc.
So there are enough safeguards in the law that should shield residents from unsavoury experiences due to the presence of TASMAC shops – but as of now, these seem to exist only on paper. The strong opposition from citizens, and the instances of uprisings in Chromepet and Perambur bear that out.