India court halts tourist state's alcohol ban at 11th hour

NEW DELHI (AFP) - India's top court on Thursday temporarily halted southern tourism state Kerala's move to ban alcohol, handing bars and hotels a last-minute reprieve on the eve of its controversial introduction.

The Supreme Court stayed the Kerala government's plans to introduce almost complete prohibition from Friday, following uproar from hoteliers who feared the move would drive away tourists seeking some booze with their beach holiday.

The court stopped the move until the end of the month to allow the High Court in Kerala time to hear petitions from bar owners who say the move is discriminatory and threatens their businesses.

"There is no coercive action till Sept 30," Justice Anil R Dave told the court, announcing the stay.

The judge also questioned the policy, which would mean 700 bars losing their licences straight away, although shops selling liquor would be phased out over 10 years and five-star hotels exempt from the ban except on Sundays.

"If you want to stop it, stop the whole thing in one go like Gujarat. Gujarat is much safer," the judge said, referring to the western state which has long been dry.

With its sweeping coastline, riverboats and emerald tea plantations, Kerala has become a leading tourist draw in India, promoting itself as "God's Own Country".

But behind the paradisiacal slogan, the state has a damaging drinking problem among its 34 million population, leading the government to opt abruptly for almost complete prohibition - alarming the tourism industry.

There is little denial of an alcohol problem in rum and brandy-loving Kerala, which has the highest consumption levels in India owing to its relatively high living standards, while the region also has a long tradition of home-brewing.

But many say the move will leave a big hole in the state coffers, with alcohol taxes and fees generating more than US$1 billion (S$1.26 billion) in the 2012-13 financial year.