‘MY’-way or The ‘HIGH’-way

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The Hon’ble Supreme Court, on 31st March, 2017, refused to revisit its order banning liquor vends within 500 metres of National Highways (NH) and State Highways (SH) from April 1, 2017 and ruled that this would also bar hotels and restaurants on highways from serving liquor to guests.

In the landmark case of State of Tamil Nadu v. K.Balu, Supreme Court passed an order on December 15, 2016 keeping in mind the large number of deaths on highways due to drunken driving and the easy availability of alcohol, the SC had ordered that no liquor vend could operate within 500 metres of NH’s and SH’s. It had also said these vends could not be visible from highways and nor could hoardings be put up advertising their proximity to the highways.

The only relaxation given by the SC was in terms of the distance and that too for small municipal areas that have come up on both sides of NH’s and SH’s. The small hill states of Sikkim and Meghalaya, which had pleaded that 500 metres on both sides of NH’s and SH’s were not available because of topography, with hill on one side and gorge on the other, were exempted from the distance rule.

Such order from SC has directly affected the revenue generated by the vendors.

Losses predicted:

The Maharashtra Government has predicted loss of Rs. 7000 crore due such closure. The Government of Tamil-Nadu has predicted loss in between of Rs. 4500 to 10,000 crore. The wine industry in Nashik is likely to take hit on its annual wine sale amounting to Rs. 120 crore.

 For ‘Dry’ways:

In dry Gujarat, liquor is only sold to those who have health permit or the visitor’s permit. If the government compels the vendors to shut the shops, it would be an unjust step and restricting their right to trade and commerce. Hence the ruling of SC is totally irrelevant and unjust to the state where the prohibition law is already in force. Bihar is another example of a state where prohibition law is applicable.

An RTI activist from Chandigarh whose PIL lead to nationwide liquor ban on booze sales along highways never wanted to the watering holes within the city limits to shut down. As Chandigarh is comparatively a small city a large pubs and bars fall within the 500 metres rule, forcing numerous bars, pubs, hotels and restaurants to shut down and stop selling liquor.

Finding a HIGH‘way’-out:

Such step by SC has created a lot of agitation as a result massive protests have been made by the vendors. As a result of the agitation and to maintain harmony, many states have started de-notifying the highways, considering it to be one of the tactical steps against the decision. In Maharashtra, four Municipal corporations passed resolutions for taking over the state Highways passing through those cities. Around 300 bars and liquor shops along Western & Eastern highways are back in business a day after the government handed over these roads to Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) from the PWD. The MMRDA has in principle taken over the three highways following the state government directives, which cited the ongoing and proposed Metro construction along these roads, to de-notify them. Similarly, Himachal Pradesh re-notified 16 SH’s as Major District Roads (MDR).

The PWD in Jaipur came up with an entire new plan of bringing one-time notification allowing existing and proposed sections of state highways passing through populated areas to become urban roads if a by-pass connects to it. Instead of de-notifying each road, old portion of state highways by default will become part of local bodies once highways is aligned through a by-pass.

After SC’s order, the liquor vendors are forced to move towards the residential area which tends to disrupt the entire social cycle as general public have a strong disagreement with the same. The cities like Chandigarh and Gurgaon have grown around the highways and as a result of planned cities most hotels, bars and restaurants are concentrated along these highways. Needless to say such closures will lead to enormous losses to business and tourism which shall ultimately lead to socio-economic catastrophe. It shall also give a birth to the entire new branch of illegal and illicit sale or trade of liquor along the highways. Several bar and restaurant owners have changed entry gate to increase distance from highways.

Poles Apart:

Recently the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MRTH) and National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) came up with their reports for the current year on drunk driving which showed entirely different figures as the deaths recorded by NCRB is 2988 whereas by MRTH is 6755. So the question persists on what criteria SC has decided the ban and why the cap has been kept to only 500 metres?

The entire belief of people should not drink and drive should be promoted through persuasive social campaigns rather than through draconian legislations and such bans.

No one can argue that drunken driving on highways is a menace and steps have to be taken to tackle it. Is anyone thinking about the number of deaths that happen due to over-speeding on roads? What about people tanking up at home or at joints within cities before taking a drive on the highway? The first and obvious step is better enforcement. This is totally lax. The second is to control access to alcohol.

The measures to ramp up governance will work better than such radical decrees. Policing should improve and agencies should be provided with better equipments to detect and tackle drunk driving. Only constant checks on drivers and punishment for offenders can deter those drink and drive. Such blanket bans from judiciary can only worsen the problem.

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