Liquor ban on Highways: A Blow to Hospitality Sector

By: Parmanand Pandey

Ban of the liquor shops on the National and State highways by the Supreme Court has caused hue and cry across the country. At times, the Supreme Court assumes the role of the activist and this decision of liquor ban within 500 meters on both sides along the highways is being interpreted as an example of its activism.

There are 65 thousand licensed shops of branded liquor in the country and out of it, more than 25 thousand liquor shops are situated on the highways. Therefore, the liquor industry is bound to be hit hard by this decision. It will, without doubt, give a big blow to the hospitality sector, which earns good money for the states.

Although this decision on the liquor ban in the ‘State of Tamil Nadu & ors vs K. Balu & anr’ was pronounced by the Supreme Court in December 2016, yet it was again reiterated when the Government of Tamil Nadu sought clarification seeking some concessions to be granted to the liquor shops. The court refused to budge from its earlier order and asked all the State Governments to make necessary safeguards to ensure that liquor vends are not visible or directly accessible from the highways within a stipulated distance of 500 meters from the outer edge or from a service lane along the highway.

It is necessary to know some hard facts.

The total number of persons killed in road accidents on National highways was 48,768 in 2012 and 51,204 in 2015. In 2014, there were 1.24 lakh accident cases resulting in 1.35 lakh persons injured and 46,110 deaths. During the same year, on State highways, there were 1.13 lakh accident cases resulting in 1.24 lakh injured and 39,352 deaths. The expressways witnessed 4,208 accident cases, 4,229 injured and 1,802 deaths. During 2014, 1.38 lakh persons were injured in road accidents involving dangerous or careless driving and 42,127 deaths occurred. Injuries caused in accidents due to over-speeding stood at 1.81 lakh while there were 48,654 deaths. 7,307 accident cases involving driving under the influence of drugs/alcohol were registered resulting in 7,398 injuries and 2,591 deaths. In regard to the figures of death or injury due to drunken driving there is a tendency to under estimate or under-report in order not to impede the right of victims and/ or their legal heirs to receive compensation.

These figures relate to the death and injuries due to drunken driving but more than 18 lakh people die every year because of drinking. The State is under the constitutional obligation to promote prohibition but that is not related to this case.

It is undeniable fact that India has the highest number of road accident fatalities in the world and data of 2009 indicated that a road accident occurred every four minutes. Thus, drunken driving is the leading cause of road accidents. Human life is precious. As the road network expands in India, road infrastructure being an integral part of economic development, accidents profoundly impact on the life of the common citizen.

For a nation on the cusp of economic development, India can well avoid the tag of being the accident capital of the world. Our highways are expanding, as are the expressways and they provide seamless connectivity and unheralded opportunities for the growth of trade and industry and for the movement of goods, persons and capital. They are the backbone of the freedom of trade and commerce guaranteed by Article 301 of the Constitution. Our highways are dotted with sign boards warning of the dangers of combining speed and alcohol. Together, they constitute a heady cocktail. The availability of liquor along the highways is an opportunity to consume. Easy access to liquor shops allows for drivers of vehicles to partake in alcohol, in callous disregard to their own safety and the safety of others.

The advisories of the Union government to the states are founded on a logical and sound rationale but they are seldom heeded mainly due to easy availability of the liquor on the highways.

The Court ruled that, ‘we are conscious of the fact that the policy of the Union government to discontinue liquor vends on national highways may not eliminate drunken driving completely. A driver of a motor vehicle can acquire liquor even before the commencement of a journey or, during a journey at a place other than national or state highways and hence the law on preventing drunken driving also requires proper enforcement’.

It is a trite law that in matters of policy, in this case a policy on safety, the court will accept a considered view formed by an expert body. Second; this view of the Union government is based on statistics and data which make out a consistent pattern year after year. Third; the existence of liquor vends on highways presents a potent source for easy availability of alcohol. The existence of liquor vends; advertisements and sign boards drawing attention to the availability of liquor coupled with the arduous drives particularly in heavy vehicles makes it abundantly necessary to enforce the policy of the Union government to safeguard human life. In doing so, the court does not fashion its own policy but enforces the right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution based on the considered view of expert bodies.

There is no fundamental right under Article 19(1) (g) to trade in liquor. Liquor has been regarded as res extra commercium, which is clear from dozens of previous judgments. Liquor licenses in respect of potable alcoholic liquor are granted by the state governments. Entry 51 of the state list provides for duties of excise on alcoholic liquors for home consumption manufactured and produced in the state and countervailing duties at the same or lower rates on similar goods manufactured or produced elsewhere in India.

Earlier on 8th September 2015, the attention of the authorities was drawn to the fact that the model policy had been prepared nearly a decade earlier and several decisions have been delivered since. Therefore, the court opined that it was necessary that the policy is revisited by the states and union territories and by the Union government together in regard to the sale of liquor and alcoholic beverages in the proximity of national and state highways.

Among many directions which the Supreme Court handed down in its judgement for the Union and State Governments to be followed are: (i) all states and union territories shall forthwith cease and desist from granting licenses for the sale of liquor along national and state highways; (ii) the prohibition shall extend to and include stretches of such highways which fall within the limits of a municipal corporation, city, town or local authority; (iii) the existing licenses which have already been renewed prior to the date of this order shall continue until the term of the license expires but no later than 1 April 2017; (iv) all signages and advertisements of the availability of liquor shall be prohibited and existing ones removed forthwith both on national and state highways.

The Supreme Court also directed that no shop for the sale of liquor shall be (i) visible from a national or state highway; (ii) directly accessible from a national or state highway and (iii) situated within a distance of 500 meters of the outer edge of the national or state highway or of a service lane along the highway.

For the strict compliance of its order the Supreme Court has asked all the Chief Secretaries and Directors General of Police to chalk out a plan within a month for enforcement in consultation with the state revenue and home departments. Responsibility shall be assigned inter alia to District Collectors and Superintendents of Police and other competent authorities. Some of the State Governments and union territories are at wit’s end as to how to cope with the huge revenue losses, which they will be incurring but the Court has been firm in telling that large scale deaths by drunken driving cannot be allowed for the sake of generating revenue.

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