On Supreme Court liquor order, ‘city of Kerala’ and other pleas

How the apex court gradually relaxed its tough order on liquor vends along highways

Written by Ananthakrishnan G | New Delhi | Updated: March 2, 2018 12:26:39 pm
Buyers stand in queue in rain outside a liquor shop in Kochi in 2017. (Express photo by Nirmal Harindran)

On December 15, 2016, the Supreme Court ordered a countrywide ban on the sale of liquor along National and State Highways to check the “menace” of drunken driving. Fourteen months down the line, the court has exempted municipal areas from the purview of its order, and left it to states to decide whether to allow them in areas under local self-government bodies.

Several states pleaded for a relaxation of the original order — Sikkim said 82% of its area was forests, and 92% of liquor shops would have to be shut down; Kerala stressed its geography and “unique” settlement pattern, and asked the court to consider the entire state as a “single city”. As the court heard the pleas, it departed from the December 15, 2016 order, in which it had said that “no exception can be carved out for the grant of liquor licences in respect of those stretches of the National or State Highways which pass through the limits of any municipality corporation, city, town or local authority”.

The beginning

In 2016, the Supreme Court was hearing appeals against judgments by two High Courts on the location of liquor vends on National and State Highways.

On February 25, 2013, Madras High Court had ordered the relocation, by March 31 that year, of Tamil Nadu State Marketing Transport Corporation-run liquor shops along National and State Highways.

On March 18, 2014, Punjab and Haryana High Court, while hearing a PIL filed by Chandigarh-based NGO Arrive Safe Society, had directed Haryana to ensure there were no liquor vends along National and State Highways, and that liquor shops were not accessible or visible from the highways and service lanes. The court had rejected the state’s plea that this action be limited to National Highways.

On December 15, 2016, the Supreme Court upheld both orders. “No distinction can be made between National and State Highways in regard to the location of liquor shops,” it said. “A restriction that the (liquor) shop should not be accessible or visible from the National or State Highways or from a service lane… is necessary to ensure that the policy is not surreptitiously violated.” Liquor vends could not be “visible or directly accessible from the highway within a stipulated distance of 500 metres from the outer edge of the highway, or from a service lane along the highway”, the court said.

Tamil Nadu plea

Tamil Nadu asked the court to reconsider the 500-metre rule, saying topography and geography differed from state to state, which was the reason excise rules laid down varying distances from highways for the location of liquor shops. On March 31, 2017, the court relaxed the distance to 220 metres for areas governed by local bodies, and with populations of 20,000 or less. It also exempted the hilly states of Sikkim and Meghalaya from this rule, keeping in view their peculiar topography. Sikkim had said that nearly 82% of its area is forested, and 92% of liquor shops would have to be shut if the December 15, 2016 order was implemented.

Renotification of roads

NGO Arrive Safe approached the court against a March 16, 2017 decision of the Chandigarh Administration to renotify some roads in the municipal areas as Major District Roads. These roads had been notified as State Highways in October 2005, and the petition claimed the renotification was done to circumvent the liquor ban order. The court rejected this contention, ruling on July 11, 2017, that the December 15, 2016 order “did not prevent the Administration from reclassifying inter-sectoral roads within the city from State Highways to Major District Roads”.

More exemptions

On July 12, 2017, the apex court granted an exemption similar to Sikkim and Meghalaya to Arunachal Pradesh, and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Thereafter, some licencees moved the court seeking relaxations, and were allowed, along with the states pleading for exemptions, to file affidavits to substantiate their claims.

The Kerala affidavit

Kerala argued that even though the state consisted of municipal and panchayat areas, it should be considered as a single city. “Kerala is very unique (in)… settlement pattern(s)… In other states, the hamlets are surrounded by field/open areas… However, in Kerala, in most of its parts…, it is a continuous spread of habitation without much open lands… The infrastructural facilities… in general do not vary much between rural and urban,” it said.

Kerala, which has an area of only 38,863 sq km, has a population density of 859 per sq km — much higher that the national average of 382. “It is… a narrow strip…, consists of a large number of national and state highways, (and) almost every corner of the state has road connectivity… Forest and water body areas cover about 30%… As per local laws, agricultural lands… cannot be used for any other purpose. Only the remaining area is available for residential and business use. These peculiar features… make it further difficult for shifting the liquor outlets abutting the National and State Highways.” Also, it said, the restriction on liquor outlets was adversely affecting tourism.

The latest order

On February 23 this year, a Bench of Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justices Amitava Roy and D Y Chandrachud allowed state governments to decide whether to allow liquor vends in areas covered by local self-governing bodies and statutory development authorities. “Having regard to these directions, we are of the view that the state governments would not be precluded from determining whether the principle… laid down by this court (on) 11 July 2017 in Arrive Safe Society… should also apply to areas covered by local self-governing bodies and statutory development authorities. We are inclined to allow the state governments to make this determination since it is a question of fact as to whether an area covered by a local self-governing body is proximate to a municipal agglomeration or is sufficiently developed as to warrant the application of the same principle,” the court said.

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