Clarifying its order requiring liquor vends to be invisible and inaccessible from highways, the Supreme Court has dismissed a petition challenging the denotifications of highways at points where they pass through Chandigarh. This will save urban liquor shops, restaurants and pubs located within 500 metres of highways, whose business was snuffed out by the order which came into effect nationwide on April 1.
Earlier, noting that Bengaluru has six national highways passing through the city, Karnataka had urged the Centre to denotify 700 km of national highways and 1,476 km of state highways passing through built-up areas. The Supreme Court’s clarification brings relief to several state governments which denotified urban roads to prevent revenue losses following its order.
The court banned the sale of liquor near highways with the best of intentions. India is a global leader in road fatalities and drunk driving contributes significantly to the figure of 1.46 lakh deaths per year. In response to a public interest matter, it was reasoned that the removal of vends and advertising from the vicinity of highways would curb impulse consumption and the pervasive culture of drinking on the road.
However, the order was perhaps flawed, conveying the impression that it sought to reduce access to drink, instead of addressing the cause of the high death rate: Drunk driving. There is a significant difference between removing temptation and urging behaviour change. And the loss of livelihoods which the order caused was unwelcome. Now, apart from the dismissal of the petition in the Supreme Court, the Centre has clarified that the order intended to curb drunk driving, and not drinking.
While Karnataka made its case formally, other states like Uttarakhand and Maharashtra had moved to save excise revenues by quietly denotifying state highways where they ran through urban centres, and declining to acknowledge that it was done under the influence of the court order. Now, the Supreme Court’s clarification legitimises the arrangement, and it applies to all Indian highways. This is a pragmatic step away from what was clearly an impossible situation.
There is now an opportunity to take another significant step, in the direction of nations which have successfully combated drunk driving. Deterrence lies not in the removal of temptation, but the certainty that offenders will be identified and penalised. In the Western countries, deterrence has been based on a fail-safe combination of pervasive traffic cameras, surprise checks and serious punitive measures. While drinking establishments and vends line their highways, drivers are discouraged from going over the limit by the near-certainty of conviction. Rather than harming the hospitality industry by limiting access to alcohol, Indian law must similarly focus on the cause of the problem: Drunk driving, rather than drink.