Supreme Court Ban on Liquor Shops along Highways was needed

Ban on all liquor shops on national and state highways across the country by the Supreme Court last Thursday, prohibiting renewal of licences of such existing shops after March 31 is a welcome decision that might initially upset thousands of shops affected, but it will definitely result in saving lives due to reduction in accidents due to drunk driving and is a step in the right direction to reduce alcohol consumption

The Supreme Court on Thursday last ordered closure of all liquor shops along national and state highways across the country and directed governments to “cease and desist” from issuing excise licenses. Expressing concern over nearly 1.5 lakh deaths every year in road mishaps, a bench led by Chief Justice of India T S Thakur said that no new liquor vend shall come up along the highways while those already having licences will have to shut shop by April 1, 2017.

The figures of traffic related deaths in India are alarming. According to the Report in Times of India one person dies every four minutes on Indian roads — the highest in the world. As many as 1,46,133 people died last year. Several studies have shown that alcohol is the major culprit. According to a WHO study, 30 to 35% accidents are due to drunken driving. Another study by Nimhans in Bengaluru found 44% of crash victims seeking medical treatment to be under the influence of alcohol. And a PGI Chandigarh study found that 85 (40%) out of 200 drivers with serious head injuries had alcohol in their blood.

The Order comes on the basis of several petitions filed by several NGOs and in particular one Harman Sing Siddhu who was paralysed in a road accident 20 years ago. He has been diligently following up with the ground realities in Punjab through RTI applications and had filed a PIL. According to a survey in 2012 that he carried out on his own, there were 185 liquor vends on the 291km national highway between Panipat and Jalandhar- one liquor vend every 1.5km. The same year, he filed a PIL in the Punjab and Haryana High Court, pleading that all liquor vends on national and state highways be closed down as they were a major cause of drunken driving resulting in fatal accidents. More than 1,000 vends were closed in Punjab and Haryana following the court order in 2014. The powerful liquor lobby had however, managed to get a stay which now becomes infructuous.

States may suffer Excise Revenue Loss

Telangana and Maharashtra are the states expected to suffer most, besides Punjab. More than 50 per cent of the total 3000 liquor selling outlets (2200 wine shops and 800 bars) abutting or along the highways passing through Telangana will have to be shifted beyond 500 metres if they want to continue their business. <To clarify once again, In India the term Wine Shop refers to a liquor shop and has nothing to do with wine which may or may not be sold-editor>

The highest number of bars and liquor shops that would be affected by the Supreme Court order is reportedly in Maharashtra which has about 8400 bars and liquor shops along the national and state highways, including the Mumbai Metropolitan Region.

The State Excise Rules 2012 already specifies that no liquor store shall be established within 50 metres from the National and State Highways, and exempts villages, municipalities and corporations located on either side of highways. The extent of its implementation is in itself an unanswered question, though.  Supreme Court had already closure of such shops within 100 meters of the highways. The current directive is merely an extension of the prohibited area.

One has to wait and watch if the law is implemented in the spirit it has been passed by the Supreme Court. The proper implementation would imply that the State is serious about enforcing the Prohibition Clause in the Constitution.

It’s another matter that the States have become so dependent on this major contributor to excise that they like to turn a blind eye to such rules. On the other hand, States like Bihar have enforced prohibition without any regard to the taxes they would become totally deprived of. Jury is out on the success of the adventurous experiment in Bihar. But if one goes by the examples in Maharashtra, Haryana and Gujarat, it has not succeeded in the past.  Prohibiting sales of liquor on the highway will not only help save several lives it will also curb the consumption of hard liquor which is good for national health.

The step is not likely to affect the wine sales much. The highway wine shops and the wine bar do not attract many wine drinkers-barring the low-end fortified wine which they fortify further by adding hard liquor. Minor loss in this segment would be of no consequence.

Subhash Arora