Good intentions do not necessarily result in desirable outcomes. There are fears that the Supreme Court's recent decision to uphold its order banning the sale of alcohol within 500 meters of state and national highways could become a case in point. According to a 2014 report from the Ministry of Road Transport & Highways, approximately 139,671 people lost their lives on India's roads—a significant portion attributed to drunk driving. The actual figures could be a lot higher, the court argued. It also cited the recommendations of the National Road Safety Council, an apex government body for road safety, which had argued way back in 2004 that authorities should not issue licenses for liquor shops along national highways. Even the road transport ministry has regularly advised all state governments to remove liquor shops and not to issue new licences to liquor shops along national highways, besides admitting in 2011 that drunken driving was the leading cause of road accidents. Nonetheless, one must note that none of these entities makes any actual reference to "500 metres" being the distance within which liquor shops should not operate. Drunk driving is, without a doubt, a major contributor to road accidents and fatalities. Although the intentions of the court are evidently clear, the ban orders are a tad misdirected and come at an enormous cost of thousands of people who depend on these outlets for their livelihood. Will the court's decision to crack down on the sale of liquor along these highways turn the tide and reduce incidences of alcohol-related vehicular deaths? Will it prevent individuals from detouring more than 500 metres for their drink and then drive rashly? How far is far enough? What about accidents on roads that are not highways? Is there a difference between vendors selling liquor along highways from those along interior roads? Strict laws are all well and good, but make no difference if enforcement is weak. Late last week, the Union Cabinet approved changes to the Motor Vehicle Act. Under the proposed new rules, the fine for drunk driving has increased five times to Rs 10,000, and if it results in the death of another person, the driver can be booked for a non-bailable offence with imprisonment up to 10 years. These rules framed by our elected representatives are indeed a better deterrent against drunk driving and will cost businesses a lot less than the court's order.
Another critical aspect is severe economic impact the order could have on the liquor business. In a clarification issued confirming its 2016 order, the court went on to assert that the ban would not merely cover retail outlets but hotels and bars too. While retail outlets can set up shop at a further distance of 500 metres at minimal cost and loss of customers, hotels and bars are at a massive disadvantage. In a scathing editorial against the order, The Hindu argues: "The order does not exempt outlets in cities and towns, where most of the consumers are local residents, nor does it distinguish between hotel guests and passing drivers. If drunk driving along the highways is the provocation for the order, there can be no reason to cover clubs that serve only their members. It is one thing to order the closure of shops dotting the highways, and quite another to target establishments in cities and towns, which cannot move, and which will lose their clientele to others." The Federation of Hotels and Restaurant Associations of India has pegged the total loss of revenue to about 40%. It also suggested that this dip in revenue could also result in the loss of employment for approximately 1 million people. State governments and Union Territories could also miss out on an important source of revenue. On the issue of enforcement, the past weekend has noticed some unusual steps taken by administrators in their areas of jurisdiction. States are now desperately de-notifying their highways, fearing job losses and falling revenue. For example, the administration in Chandigarh, a Union Territory, has reclassified highways passing through it as district roads. The hospitality industry in India has grown leaps and bounds in the past two decades, and the liquor business in many parts is an integral part of it. These are realities that such prohibitive orders cannot hope to ignore. States like Goa, and UTs like Puducherry, are literally situated between the highway and the sea, and relocation for many businesses in these areas will be incredibly tough, if not impossible. On Friday, the Supreme Court had issued a clarification, where it exempted Himachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, and Sikkim, and places with a population of less than 20,000 from the rule. These states can have liquor shops within a radius of 220 metres from highways. To some extent, this clarification will address some of the concerns arising from the order.
As a matter of state policy, prohibition has never quite worked. The standard argument issued by those in defence of prohibition is based on the directive principles of state policy (DPSP) written into the Constitution. According to Article 47, "The State shall endeavour to bring about prohibition of the consumption except for medicinal purposes of intoxicating drinks and of drugs which are injurious to health." Unlike fundamental rights, DPSP is not enforceable in a court of law. These principles are only meant to act as guidelines when legislatures frame laws. While heavy consumption of alcohol does result in serious health problems and significant social costs, the kind of bans issued by the courts and State governments like Bihar rarely reduce the incidence of death and have unintended consequences for people dependent on a livelihood that is entirely legal in many parts of the country.
While heavy consumption of alcohol does result in serious health problems and significant social costs, the kind of bans issued by the courts and State governments like Bihar rarely reduce the incidence of death and have unintended consequences for people dependent on a livelihood that is entirely legal in many parts of the country.