The highway to hell is paved with good intentions. Hearing a case that originated in very worthy activism for road safety, the Supreme Court had the opportunity to move decisively against drunk driving, which contributes significantly to road mishaps in India. Instead, it chose to mow down the liquor and hospitality industries wholesale. Tourism, which the government has identified as a sector with growth potential, will be badly hit. While the court’s order bans the sale of alcohol in a strip a kilometre wide straddling India’s highways, it could have curbed the menace simply by ordering the police to aggressively scan for drunk drivers at highway locations where people are known to stop for one for the road, and maybe one more for the culvert. The extra outlay on policing would have been a tiny fraction of the losses predicted from the highway liquor ban, and could have been recovered from fines.
Now, the ban is expected to cost states Rs 50,000 crore in revenues. The hospitality industry could lose Rs 15,000 crore in earnings, and perhaps a million people working in this sunrise sector could lose their jobs. The ban will cause only minor inconvenience to drunk drivers, who will just go 500 metres off the highway to reach the nearest beverage. What would work against drunk driving in India? The very strategies that have worked in western nations: Punitive fines and suspension of the right to drive for significant periods, or even for life. Last week, the Union cabinet cleared amendments to the Motor Vehicles Act raising the fine for drunk driving to Rs 10,000. If a drunk driver causes death in an accident, the charge shall no longer be mere negligence but be escalated to culpable homicide. These steps establish the seriousness of the government, and yet they are baby steps. A Rs 10,000 fine is nugatory in comparison with the damage that drunk driving wreaks on innocent lives. And with repeat offenders, it is more important to take them off the roads before they can cause damage than to tie them in legal knots after the event.
A global leader in road fatalities, second only to China, India needs to impose severe, punitive curbs on drunk drivers, instead of attacking liquor with puritanical zeal. Political organisations play the puritan card for electoral gains, but a court has no plausible reason to go down that road. It must be mindful of the implications of destroying jobs and denying excise duty to governments, which will be reflected in curtailed welfare schemes. Surely the Supreme Court knows that the target is not drink, but the drunk at the wheel.