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The recent order of the apex court banning the sale of alcohol within 500 m of national and state highways (220 m for towns with a population of less than 20,000) is at the centre of fierce criticism from the supporters of free liquor. Their arguments are based on the grounds of revenue losses, the adverse impact on the hospitality industry and loss of jobs. They have also questioned the Supreme Court for being moralistic, impractical and guilty of judicial overreach.
What such criticism fails to understand, however, is that the Supreme Court does not make laws — it is called upon to only interpret them. The judiciary is not expected to by-pass Article 47 of the Constitution with its unequivocally clear directive that “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”. Since the 1950s the courts have interpreted Article 47 to develop a body of jurisprudence that puts alcohol in the category of res extra commercium, that is, no industry can claim a fundamental right to deal in this substance. The right as well as the duty lies with the government to regulate the supply of liquor through licensing and other mechanisms.
Tomorrow, liquor-supporters could well start a campaign to repeal Article 47, but as long as it remains on the statute books, the courts are well within their jurisdiction to interpret and implement the same.
These same liquor-supporters were pretty loud in their criticism of Bihar’s prohibition policy. At that time, they posed as “regulationists” — regulate alcohol instead of banning it, they said. We would request the liquor-supporters, many who consider themselves part of the liberal intelligentsia, to take this opportunity to spell out their idea of regulation. How much liquor on a highway, or in an area generally, would be too much? Or are they for absolute free flow of alcohol, at all times and everywhere?
The apex court order has started a deluge of statistical analyses about the exact percentage of highway accidents caused due to drunken driving, the annual numbers of casualties and injuries resulting therefrom, etc., and the figures from various sources contradict each other. We find this debate around numbers interesting, yet pointless. A sensitive society ought to consider even one such death too many. One could take a cue from the Swedish Parliament which has adopted a Road Traffic Safety Bill, advocating “Vision Zero” — creating a system wherein eventually, deaths and injuries due to road accidents would be reduced to a zero. A more pertinent question is whether removal of liquor vends from highways is the effective way of curbing accidents due to drunken driving.
The Global Policy to Reduce the Harmful Use of Alcohol published by WHO considers regulation strategies as one of the “essential measures that prevent easy access to alcohol by vulnerable and high-risk groups”. While it is true that habitual drinkers are not going to be deterred by the distance of 500 m, the apex court’s order sends a signal that the state should do everything in its power to ensure that alcohol is not effortlessly available on either side of the highways. All states have excise policies that do not allow liquor vends within a certain distance of religious, educational institutions, bus stands, etc. If this is considered a reasonable restriction on the sale and consumption of liquor, why should the apex court’s order not be seen in the same light — as a reasonable restriction imposed for the sake of public safety on highways?
A picture has been painted that banning alcohol on highways is the only measure being promoted by the judiciary to ensure road safety. It needs to be emphasised that in April 2014, the Supreme Court set up a Committee on Road Safety headed by Justice K.S. Radhakrishnan, which has made recommendations on several aspects of road safety, including stricter enforcement of laws regarding over-speeding, red light-jumping, use of seat belts and helmets, establishment of hospitals and trauma centres on highways, engineering measures for safer roads, public road safety education, etc., in addition to criminal prosecution in cases of drunken driving.
In other words, the banning of alcohol vends on highways is part of a multi-pronged approach to road safety emerging from public interest litigation on this issue. Being the most controversial aspect, it has attracted the highest media and public attention.
Therefore, the emphasis needs to remain on effective implementation, not only of the ban on alcohol on highways, but of the entire gamut of road safety measures proposed by expert committees over several years. This is going to be a serious challenge, given the apparent unwillingness of the state governments thus far — it is not as if they are only reluctant to implement the ban on alcohol, there is an overall lackadaisical attitude towards policing the highways, ensuring mobile squads with breathalysers, providing prompt trauma care to accident victims and so on.
While most of the detractors are well-to-do people from cities (more likely to travel in cars and stop for a drink on the highway), there is a vast population, especially amongst rural women, who are welcoming the apex court’s orders. We struggle hard to shut down one shop and the court has closed down ten thousand at a single stroke, many say. Women fighting for prohibition in their own villages, mohallas, districts and towns rejoice as shop after liquor shop downs its shutters. Beginning with prohibition in Bihar, there is an increasing demand across the country that alcohol be banned. Gradually but surely, a consensus has built up at the grassroots against liquor and it has gained immeasurable strength through the Supreme Court’s firm ruling.
The writers work with Shramik Elgar, a grassroots movement which spearheaded the campaign for prohibition in Chandrapur district of Maharashtra