At least 500 diners and permit rooms – located within 500 metres of national or state highways – were shut for days after the Supreme Court order came into effect. Hoteliers in Mumbai have started feeling the heat of ban on all liquor vending, with many complaining of a 50 per cent drop in business. Some of these hotels include showcased properties in the vicinity of the airport. Many of these properties claimed that they did nearly 50 per cent less business in last two days with patrons preferring to eat at places serving liquor.
Supreme Court decided in December 2016 that the presence of shops and restaurants selling liquor near highways was leading to drunken driving, which cause the vast majority of fatal road accidents in the country. So, it banned them. Specifically, it ordered that no establishment is permitted to sell alcohol if it is within 500 metres of a national or state highway. On April 1, after some slight alterations to the judgement, that rule came into effect, leading to confusion and concerns from parties all over the country.
In city like Mumbai, there are many houses near highways, many buildings and establishments are around highway, what if they drink at home? Moreover, the hotels those are often located on highways are five and four-star hotels, and average people doesn’t consume liquor at such expensive places, and those elite who drink are generally driven away by the driver.
Anyway, drink wherever they want but never drink and drive should not be supported. All this happened after a petitioner who became disabled because of a road accident decided to take his battle against drunken driving to court, which promptly decides that it needs to ban liquor shops near major roads. The court pointed to a model policy for alcoholic beverages and alcohol, prepared by the Centre more than a decade, which includes in paragraph 92(2), a provision suggesting no licence for sale of liquor should be granted to shops within 100 metres from a state or national highway.
That model policy permitted exceptions for portions of highways that come within city limits. The court said the model policy made clear the Centre’s approach, but it dismissed the exception, saying allowing liquor shops along highways within cities and towns would defeat the purpose of the policy altogether and also violate Article 14 of the Constitution promising equality under the law.
The National Road Safety Council is an advisory body set up by the Centre to help guide policy on road safety. The council features representatives from state governments, various ministries and external experts. According to the court, the NRSC unanimously agreed in a meeting on January 15, 2004, that licences for liquor shops should not be given along national highways.
Since 26 October 2007, when an advisory was issued, MoRTH has consistently advised all the state governments to remove liquor shops and not to issue fresh licences to liquor vends along national highways,” the December judgement says. These advisories were confined to national highways, not state ones, only because the Centre has no jurisdiction over state highways. Additionally, because liquor is a state subject, these could only be advisories and not mandates.
The Court also pointed to Section 185 of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988, which lists out punishments for whoever has “in his blood, alcohol in any quantity, howsoever small the quantity may be”. Since the Centre also pointed to this section as its reason for advising a ban on liquor shops along national highways, the Court took this as Parliamentary intent suggesting zero tolerance for drunken driving.
Based on these four grounds – the Centre’s policy, an expert opinion, repetition of Centre’s advisory and an indication from Parliament – the court concluded that its decision does not count as judicial overreach.
None of those reasons actually make any reference to “500 metres” being the distance within which liquor shops should be disallowed. The model policy from more than a decade ago uses 100 metres as its threshold, while all the other policies simply seek to ban shops “along” the highways. An expert committee earlier appointed by the Court also recommended keeping the limit at 100 metres, but the court dismissed this saying that distance is “not adequate” to stop people on the roads from getting access to alcohol. The court did give a few concessions on other matters after interventions from states.
Court exempted Meghalaya and Sikkim from the ban, since hilly terrain would mean more than 90% of shops would have been forced to close down. But it finally refused to give more time to other states to enforce the order, and made it clear that the ban, which applied starting April 1, would apply to pubs and restaurants as much as liquor stores.
The ban applies to liquor vends as well as hotels and other parlours. One of the major issues raised by industry bodies was that it was impossible for these commercial establishments to now move to another location thus putting investments running into crores of rupees to waste. While travelling on highways or even modern metropolis, one can spot huge signboards, often LED or neon lit, directing commuters to liquor vends ahead. These are loopholes that would easily be exploited by shop owners on highways. They could shift their shops with minimal cost and direct travellers to interior locations, like many do, away from highways into the inner roads, lanes and away from the 500 metre limit.
Meanwhile, the Maharashtra government, which is also estimated to lose an annual Rs. 7,000 crore due to the ban, tried to exempt bars from the order. However, the SC clarified that its order applied to all establishments including bars. It is better if Hotel and Tourism Industry approach the Judiciary to modify the court order to details the ban areas inside the City limits and as well as on the Highways which was issued with good intention and the idea is to have safer journey on the Highways and to avoid drunken driving. I hope, the court will modify it judgement if convinced it properly.
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