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Wine and whimper (Hindu)

The Supreme Court order banning sale of liquor along highways is not fully thought out




When courts clarify earlier orders, the understanding is that they would have considered more facts, applied better reasoning, and foreseen later eventualities. But when the Supreme Court last week confirmed its December order on banning sale of liquor near National and State highways, it not only reiterated many of the impractical aspects of the original judgment, but went on to assert that the proscription would cover not just retail outlets but hotels and bars too. What distinguishes, or logically sets apart, the sale of liquor along highways from that along interior roads? Apparently, the order is intended to prevent drunk driving, which is without doubt a contributor to road accidents and fatalities. But if tougher laws can make up for weak enforcement, then judicial officers can just as well replace law-enforcers. The court’s clarification goes against the opinion Attorney-General Mukul Rohatgi gave the Kerala government that the December order applied only to retail outlets and not to establishments such as bar-attached hotels, and beer and wine parlours. What was a harsh order is now draconian in its sweep. Retail outlets can perhaps move another 500 m with minimal expense and no great loss of clientele. But established hotels and clubs enjoy no such luxury. All of a sudden, what was a great advantage of location is a major disadvantage. The order does not exempt outlets in cities and towns, where most of the consumers are local residents, nor does it distinguish between hotel guests and passing drivers. If drunk driving along the highways is the provocation for the order, there can be no reason to cover clubs that serve only their members. It is one thing to order the closure of shops dotting the highways, and quite another to target establishments in cities and towns, which cannot move, and which will lose their clientele to others.

State governments face a huge loss in revenue. Smaller administrative units such as Union Territories will be the worst-hit. Such quirky orders have inevitably led to quirky responses. The UT of Chandigarh, for instance, has declared all city roads as urban roads. Puducherry, which includes enclaves such as Mahe, will find relocation of many shops impossible. They are caught between the highway and the sea. Goa, a small State that depends heavily on tourism, is in a similarly difficult situation. The relaxation of the liquor-free zone from 500 m to 220 m from the highways in the case of areas with a population of 20,000 or less might only partly address their concerns. More than a third of the liquor sale and consumption points will be hit. Prohibition as a policy has had a history of failure. While binge-drinking is undoubtedly a health hazard with serious social costs, bans of the sort adopted by courts and State governments such as Bihar are counterproductive. Good intentions do not guarantee good outcomes.

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