It was meant to be like any other Friday evening. Yet, the Supreme Court's decision to ban liquor vends, as well as restaurants, bars and hotels serving liquor within 500 metres of national and state highways has left countless employees in the hospitality industry shocked and dismayed.
In December, the Supreme Court had initially ruled that no liquor vends would be allowed to operate within 500 metres of national highways and state highways, citing the large number of highway deaths that occur due to drunken driving. Yesterday, it clarified that the ban also applied to hotels and restaurants located in the vicinity.
"State excise authorities will have to ascertain that distance in cognisance with an existing license holder and for future licences," Rahul Singh, founder and CEO of The Beer Cafe chain said. "The relevant approachable distance from a religious, educational and health institutions are already taken into consideration while giving licenses. This will now also apply for highways."
Restauranteurs say that the decision took everyone by surprise. "If you go back to the beginning, the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways gave its recommendation for highway safety, but never spoke of bars and restaurants liquor is served, not sold," National Restaurants Association of India president and CEO of the Impresario group Riyaz Amlani told HuffPost India. "It was only about truck drivers buying from liquor vends and leading to accidents. The new ban comes as a big shock to us."
The ruling is expected to affect hundreds of bars, restaurants and hotels in cities and states across India, including Gurgaon, Chandigarh, Pune and Goa. The Times of Indiareported that over 3,000 liquor traders, including bars and restaurants, in Goa would be shut as a result of the verdict, dealing a blow to the state's tourism.
In Delhi NCR, hotels in the Aerocity complex near the Indira Gandhi International Airport, and in Gurgaon, five-star hotels such as the Leela, Trident, Westin and Oberoi, restaurants and bars situated along National Highway 48, including DLF CyberHub, Sohna Road and Sector 29, will have to stop selling alcohol. However, Amlani told HuffPost India that that DLF CyberHub is at a distance of over 500 metres from the highway, and so may be exempt from the ban. However, other pub owners said that the distance will still have to be mapped by excise officials. All of Gurgaon's bars and restaurants are currently without a license, which expires on March 31. "It is also important to consider that Gurgaon's CyberHub lies within city limits. The city grows around highways," Amlani added.
Brewer Ishan Grover, who works with microbreweries across India, estimates that the ban will impact 60-65% of the hospitality industry. "It is not small scale decision. Last night thousands of people got unemployed," Grover said. "I know of at least 25 microbreweries will be shutting down across, majority in Gurgaon and Chandigarh. Rs 5 crores investment minimum. I have 5 projects in Chandigarh next month, they will be shutting down even before opening."
Many argue that the ban will have long-term repercussions on the government's excise revenues, as well as their own sales and the livelihoods of thousands of people employed in the food and beverage industry. "We support safety and are anti-drunk driving but it is tougher regulation on drunk driving is called for and not this mass preventive ban that that the court was taken without taking into account the thousands of livelihoods," Amlani said. "This retrospective order is unfair to restaurants and bars which have taken permission to operate."
Other bar owners described the order as anti-investment and anti-business. "Comparing thekas with restaurants and pubs is not fair. A vend is just three walls and a shutter -- it can easily move to any other location without investment, but restaurants and hotels require a lot of pain and investment," Pushpendra Yadav, owner of Gurgaon-based Quaff brewery said. "The court should have involved people from the business. It will affect the reputation of the country, that is it not ready to do business." Yadav's Quaff brewery in Gurgaon's CyberHub, which has over 50 employees, has been ordered not to serve liquor starting April 1.
In the absence of a legal remedy, restauranteurs and bar owners plan to ask for compensation. "The only way out is getting compensation," Amlani said. "We're going to assess how many restaurants and bars have been affected by this, how many have jobs been lost as a direct result of this, and accordingly we will ask for compensation."