Liquor ban on highways: States sidestepping SC order, renaming 'city roads' to ensure bars stay open

Remember the old riddle, on how to shorten a long line without erasing any part of it? By drawing a longer line beside it! Such artfulness has returned to India with a rage, following the recent Supreme Court ruling that banned liquor shops and bars along highways. Quick executive action in certain states have already seen highways being denotified into streets.

This comes just days after the Supreme Court recognised that a large proportion of road accidents in India took place because the driver involved had consumed alcohol. The court banned all liquor stores and bars within 500 meters of all highways.

Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

And now, because Gujarat, a dry state since its formation, hasn't been able to enforce prohibition effectively, a judge has said in an order that Daman be merged with Gujarat. It appears that the source of the illicit liquor is the Union Territory, and large numbers of Gujarat residents frequently visit Daman for their everyday tipple and go back reeking of the booze, and even carrying back a bottle or two.

Apart from Daman and Dadra Nagar Haveli on its southern tip, and Diu to the southwest of Saurashtra province, the other borders of the state are also porous and let booze seep through. There are even anecdotal suggestions that booze meant for Diu from Daman may be getting offloaded anywhere along the route through Gujarat for bootleggers to do business.

The petitioners may be regretting going to court because if the court's recommendation leads to divesting Daman of its Union Territory status, where liquor is available at cheap rates, they stand to lose their entire business. The court did not ask the Daman and Diu administration to ensure no one left that place drunk, or carried liquor stock away while exiting.

State governments couldn't persuade the court to see their point of view, and soon after the order, they began acting in a flurry. In Maharashtra, denotification could need approvals from the respective civic bodies for stretches of highways passing through the cities, and become time consuming. The move is therefore to hand them over straightaway to a development authority which would call them "roads".

When it comes to expeditious conduct by state governments in this regard, Maharashtra is not alone. If Punjab, believed to be a drinkers' paradise, given its culture of Patiala pegs, shrunk its highways by 30 km in one go, rechristening them "urban roads"; Maharashtra took as many kilometers from a single small city, Yavatmal, while Punjab took its cue from Rajasthan.

One argument is that these truly were city roads and only connected to the highways and since bypass roads had come up, they ceased being highways, even if they weren't maintained by the civic bodies anymore. In Punjab, an official is quoted as denying it was a move to skirt the Supreme Court ban. "It was in line with the Centre's policy. Just that we should have done it earlier. But it's better late than never." he was quoted as saying in the Indian Express report.

The liquor outlets, either as vendors, just bars, or bars and restaurants within hotels, are all worried about loss of business. They had bought licences at a huge price, in some places by auctions plus bribes, as is the wont in India. The lightning speed with which governments acted on denotification of highways is patently because they stand to lose a lot of revenue. One media estimate had said that all states put together, we'd be bidding goodbye to something like Rs two lakh crore.

It's revealing that none of the states which have decided to bypass the apex court order by changing the nomenclature have yet spoken a word about how the issue of drunk driving will be tackled. They haven't spoken of stepping up promotion of responsible drinking, nor improved policing, or asking liquor providers to ensure that drivers don't get a chance to tipple. It hardly seems to be a consideration at all.

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Updated Date: Apr 12, 2017 15:04:38 IST

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