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Why the SC highway liquor ban fails to drive home the point

Why the SC highway liquor ban fails to drive home the point

By Apoorva Mandhani

The recent Supreme Court decision to ban the sale of spirits by all vendors, bars and hotels situated within 500 metres of a National Highway has been a concern across sectors. While the verdict is aimed at reducing instances of drunk driving and road fatalities, the spillover effects of such a ban are several. After all, good intentions do not always guarantee good results.

Anticipated revenue losses

It has been rightly opined that the order jeopardises millions of jobs and has crippled hundreds of crores of rupees worth of business. Beyond the financial loss, which is estimated at INR 650 billion, around 100,000 jobs are estimated to be lost. The indirect effect of so many jobs lost is likely to show up in GDP growth rates and macro-statistics at some stage. The social dimensions of that employment loss could also play out over a long period.

Further, the effect of the ban will be felt across the spectrum —from small-scale joints to marquee properties like the Trident and Leela. The hospitality sector, liquor manufacturers and FMCG firms will also take a hit as will real estate developers in the affected locations. The ban will, however, cause only minor inconvenience for drivers, who could just go 500 metres off the highway to reach the nearest liquor store.

States and establishments swerving around the ban

The order has led to several States scrambling to denotify their highways, anticipating the huge losses in jobs and revenues. India’s largest state, Rajasthan, has conducted a review of its road classification procedure and has come to the happy conclusion that several major routes had been “inadvertently” and incorrectly designated as state highways where they passed through urban areas.

Eating and drinking establishments are not far behind when it comes to adopting creative ways to tackle the directive. The CyberHub Mall in Gurgaon has reclassified its main entrance, laying the dozen of pubs that it houses more than a kilometre away from the highway. Whether these tricks would survive scrutiny remains to be seen. However, amidst the preposterous standoff between the Court’s verdict on one hand and the interests of the States and establishments on the other, the objective of the ban is already faltering.

 Lawlessness on the highway

According to the National Crime Record Bureau’s (NCRB) Accidental and Suicidal Deaths in India (2015) report, drunken driving caused a mere 2% of the 1, 48, 707 road accident deaths in 2015. The top cause of fatal accidents, as in previous years, was over-speeding. Even though the Supreme Court chose to rely on the Ministry of Road Transport and Highway’s publication Road Accidents in India (2015), which puts the share of deaths from drunk driving at a higher rate of 4.6%, none of the two reports mention the number of drunken driving-related accidents taking place on highways. It has been opined that the order fails to make a compelling case for encroaching upon the executive’s domain of policy-making.

Moreover, the statistics at hand point towards a policing problem, coupled with a disdain for the rules, making the proposed new Motor Vehicles Act, with its enhanced fines and punishments, a more effective detriment. Therefore, with the prospects of a Review Petition being filed, it will be worthwhile for the Court to explore a more accommodating stance – one which would strike a balance between the existence of businesses and the implementation of rules.

Featured image source: The Indian Express

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