From April 1, the sale of alcohol has been banned along national highways in India, following a Supreme Court order directing states to revoke commercial liquor licences. The move is expected to severely hit liquor and wine shops to tourist establishments, as well as hundreds of local bars and pubs in several metros. Here's what you need to know:
Late last year, the Supreme Court passed an order banning the sale of alcohol along national and state highways, ordering the cancellation of liquor licences issued to shops by April 1, 2017. The order states that no liquor stores should be even visible from highways, or located within a distance of 500 metres of the highways, or be directly accessible from a national or state highway. The order has been subsequently modified to exempt establishments within 220 metres of the highways for smaller towns and municipalities with a population of less than 20,000 people.
However, the court clarified that hotels, bars and pubs that serve alcohol will be included in the ban, sending many such establishments reeling as footfalls drop sharply.
"Relocate existing stores and remove all advertisement of such stores," the Supreme Court bench headed by CJI Thakur, justices D.Y. Chandrachud and L. Nageswara Rao, had said.
The order reaffirms a policy decision of the union government that goes back more than 10 years, the court noted. In 2004, the National Road Safety Council (NRSC) unanimously agreed that licences for liquor shops should not to be given along the national highways, and the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) has "consistently" advised state governments not to issue fresh licences and remove liquor shops from national highways.
Why the ban?
The order is aimed at tackling the rising menace of drunk driving as well as improving road safety conditions in India. The court cited "alarming" statistics showing drunk driving-related accidents and deaths, and said the order is in "overwhelming public interest."
The order was passed following a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by a Chandigarh-based activist Harman Sidhu who has fought for strict laws for road safety in India. Sidhu, who is a road accident victim, was paralysed neck-down at the age of 26 following a road mishap.
Citing data from the Union Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, the Supreme Court noted that in 2015, intake of alcohol or drugs by drivers resulted in 16,298 road accidents (4.2 per cent of total accidents) and 6,755 fatalities (6.4 per cent of total accidents) where drivers were at fault.
The court also said data showing low incidence of drunk driving often tends to be skewed and "under-reported" as a cause of accidents, as that can affect the claims of victims or their heirs to accident compensation.
It also rejected contrarian claims that over-speeding, instead, is the leading cause of road accidents in India and not drunken driving. "Over-speeding can also occur due to the driver being under influence of alcohol," the court said.
What happens next?
Following the ban, several individual and state applications have filed appeals against the ban. However as of March 31, only eight states had moved the court. The Supreme Court has said it will continue to hear appeals against the order.
Many states including Andhra Pradesh, Punjab, Goa, and Maharashtra have reportedly asked the central government to reclassify some highways or highway stretches as urban roads to bypass the order. Many states that rely on tourism contend that it will affect revenues and tourism industry.
According to early estimates, states and hospitality companies could see a loss of Rs 65,000 crores, and as many as 1 million jobs could go as a result of the ban.
What does it mean for your favourite bar, hotel?
Unfortunately, unless the provisions change, bars and hotels won't be allowed to serve alcohol.
The Supreme Court has clearly stated that giving exemption to such venues would defeat the purpose of the order -- controlling drunk driving.
The court has argued in its order that there should be nothing stopping states from re-issuing licences to alcohol vendors outside the prescribed distance of 500 metres. "States are free to realise revenues from liquor licences in the overwhelmingly large swathe of territories that lie outside the national and state highways and the buffer distance of 500 metres," it said.
"It would defy reason to assume that in municipal areas, availability of liquor is only along the segment of a highway. It may be attractive to the vendor to sell liquor along the highway but that is not the touchstone of a norm which protects public health and seeks to curb fatalities on the highways of the nation," the court noted.
So, as far as the court and the activists seeking safe roads go, public interest trumps commercial interests.