Supreme Court's latest remarks on highway liquor ban merely arise out of common sense

Excuse the pun, but what the Supreme Court’s latest remarks on its highway liquor ban mean is that it must be implemented in spirit but not in letter.

The apex court on Tuesday said that there is "nothing wrong" with "denotifying" highways running through cities or, in other words, reclassifying them as roads run by municipal bodies. When that’s done, the "highways" in cities turn into "roads", and when turned into "roads", they automatically get exempted from the apex court’s earlier ban on liquor outlets within 500 metres of highways.

Representational image

Representational image

This, of course, breathes fresh life into thousands of pubs, bars and liquor shops that shut shop in Bengaluru, Chandigarh and several other cities in India on the midnight of 30 June following the court’s earlier order. Each of these establishments, thought to be dead and gone, will now come alive like the Phoenix rising from ashes. Some of the famed Bengaluru pubs that began to serve dosa and coffee from 1 July can now return to their earlier menus with the headier stuff.

The court said the original purpose of the liquor ban was only meant to ensure that high-speeding vehicles on highways didn’t have drivers under influence of liquor. "There are no such issues when the roads are within the city," the court pointed out.

The court’s remark came while it was hearing a petition by a Chandigarh NGO which accused Punjab authorities of bypassing the ban by denotifying highways. A verdict is yet to come on this petition — hearing will continue next week — but Tuesday’s remarks make the court’s position on the issue amply clear.

Common sense, plain and simple

Law experts can forget about calling the apex court’s observation a splendid piece of judicial wisdom, a wonderfully path-breaking verdict or a memorable landmark in the annals of India’s legal history.

Forget it. The apex court merely used common sense.

If it makes you happy, call it "judicial common sense", a favourite expression among judges and lawyers across the world.

When the court first came up with the verdict on 15 December 2015 on a public interest litigation petition that sought to curb drunk driving on highways, officials across states ran around like headless chickens, at a complete loss on how to implement the order.

They were so busy measuring distances between bars and highways, huddling up with legal experts and drafting letters to the Union Surface Transport Ministry in their insufferable prose that they simply forgot to go back to the Supreme Court and tell the judges that the ban cannot possibly be applicable to highways crisscrossing cities.

By no stretch of imagination, drunk or sober, can the Mahatma Gandhi Road in Bengaluru, for instance, be called a “highway” for the purpose of the ban. This is, even though, technically, the road is part of National Highway No 44 that connects Sri Nagar and Kannyakumari. What sort of a brain can imagine that a truck driver can get drunk and mow down the passersby or other vehicles on a road where driving a car at 20 km is a tough job in the bumper-to-bumper chaos?

The situation was so ludicrous in Bengaluru that several important and arterial thoroughfares like the Mahatma Gandhi Road, Ballari Road and Hosur Road, clogged with city traffic, came to be officially regarded as “highways”. As a result, about 600 pubs, bars and liquor shops, including 19 hotels, which attract a steady stream of foreign business visitors every day, went dry from 1 July. This sent both the pub-hopping Bengalureans as well as the hospitality and software companies in India’s IT capital into panic of sorts.

In all, stretches of roads in Bengaluru, totalling 78 km, were almost overnight discovered to be parts of six national highways. The Siddaramaiah government wrote to Union Surface Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari and, while awaiting a reply, shut down pubs and bars, while it should have gone to the Supereme Court which it said would only be a “last option.”

The liquor-serving establishments that downed shutters along highways in cities may take a little time to resume business, since authorities will want to wait for the court’s final verdict on the Punjab petition. In Karnataka, the process of their revival can only begin after the lapsed liquor licenses are once again revived.

But one thing is clear: Bengalureans can, once for all, end their needless debate on whether their city had lost its title as India’s Pub Capital, which it wouldn’t have been deprived of anyway since the number of pubs that remained in business, even after the Supreme Court ban was enforced on 30 June, was still large enough to keep the honour.

Will ban on non-city highways work?

But all this still leaves unanswered a moot question — the same question that thinkers and drinkers have been raising ever since the Supreme Court came up with the ban. Will it — or can it — really curb, or at least reduce, drunk driving on highways?

As has been pointed out before, those who are bent on drinking and driving on highways can stock up and carry the liquor along and thumb their noses at the ban. The ban on selling or serving liquor on highways, like any other ban, will lead to illegal business and corruption. The key lies in stringent execution of existing laws against drunk driving.

But at least, as for now, the Supreme Court’s earlier none-for-the-road ruling will go back to one-for-the-road at least as far as cities are concerned.

The author tweets @sprasadindia

Updated Date: Jul 05, 2017 07:11 AM

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