The Supreme Court has admonishedÂ the Punjab Government,Â which had soughtÂ a relaxation for liquor shopsÂ near â€śelevatedâ€ť highways,Â saying, â€śLook at the numberÂ of licences you (Punjab) have given.Â Because the liquor lobby is so powerful,Â everyone is happy. The Excise DepartmentÂ is happy, the Excise Minister isÂ happy and the state government is alsoÂ happy that they are making money. If aÂ person dies due to this, you give Rs 1 or Rs 1.5Â lakh. That is it. You should take a standÂ which is helpful for society.â€ť
Strong words indeed, but fully justified.Â The state government deserves theÂ reprimand. Every state has a constitutionalÂ obligation to prohibit liquor saleÂ but states disregard it despite the factÂ that some 1.5 lakh people die every yearÂ in road accidents caused, among otherÂ factors, by drunk driving. One of theÂ petitions pointed out that nearly 1,400Â accidents and 400 deaths take placeÂ every day on Indian roads, which meansÂ 17 deaths every hour.
The Supreme Court directed thatÂ no liquor stores can operate withinÂ a distance of 500 metres of state andÂ national highways in the country.Â â€śRelocate existing stores and remove allÂ advertisement of such stores,â€ť a benchÂ comprising Chief Justice of India TSÂ Thakur, Justice DY Chandrachud andÂ JusticeÂ L Nageswara Rao said, while deliveringÂ the verdict.
The ruling came after a plea filed byÂ Tamil Nadu challenging the constitutionalÂ validity of a circular issued by the central government on April 22 askingÂ state governments to shut liquor shops along highways. Tamil Nadu contended that such a circular by the ministry ofÂ road transport and highways can onlyÂ be applicable to national highways andÂ not state highways. The apex court has disagreed with this view. The Centreâ€™sÂ circular came after an alarming riseÂ in number of drink-driving cases onÂ highways.
A committed leadership in Bihar hasÂ imposed prohibition despite the stateâ€™sÂ dire financial condition. The bench hasÂ rightly observed that revenue generationÂ cannot be a â€śvalid reasonâ€ť for a stateÂ or a Union Territory to issue licencesÂ for liquor shops on highways. The top court has not only ordered a ban on all liquor shops on national and stateÂ highways across the country, but alsoÂ prohibited the renewal of licences ofÂ existing shops after March 31 this year. The liquor business are run largely byÂ politicians or their acolytes. It thrives onÂ account of favourable excise policies.
The Punjab and Haryana High Court tooÂ have made efforts to shift liquor vendsÂ from highways but the liquor lobby hasÂ managed to dodge the court directions.Â They shut shops during the day only to reopen them at night. The order on theÂ non-renewal of the licences and removalÂ of all signboards and shops leaves noÂ room for keeping intact even make-shiftÂ liquor structures after March.
The Supreme Court has done whatÂ normally is the duty of the states and theÂ Centre. The three-member bench headedÂ by Chief Justice TS Thakur acted on aÂ number of petitions seeking a directionÂ to amend the state excise laws toÂ ensure that no liquor was sold alongsideÂ highways. Generating revenue, said the
court, cannot be a â€śvalid reasonâ€ť for governmentsÂ to allow liquor shops alongÂ the highway. The man who foughtÂ against the liquor shops on highways isÂ Harman Singh Sandhu He was going toÂ migrate to Canada when he met withÂ an accident on October 24, 1996. HeÂ was with his friends to Renuka Lake in Himachal Pradesh when his car fellÂ into a gorge.
They survived the accident andÂ all came out safely. But Sindhu sufferedÂ a spinal injury and has been on
a wheelchair since then. â€śIn India, oneÂ person dies every fourth minute inÂ road accidents, which is the highest inÂ he world,â€ť he told after the SupremeÂ Court upheld his plea and ruled thatÂ from April 1, 2017, there will be no liquorÂ shop on national and state highways.Â He said that â€śWe all know that drunken driving is one of the major reasons forÂ road accidents.
And one of the reasons why it isÂ rampant, is the easy availability onÂ national and state highways. In statesÂ like Punjab, Haryana and HimachalÂ Pradesh, one can find one or two liquorÂ shops every two kilometres. If liquorÂ is available so easily, then you cannotÂ control drunken driving. Therefore, we petitioned against these liquor shopsÂ on the highways. We mentioned inÂ our petition that a driver should not beÂ tempted to buy alcohol. We have beenÂ fighting this case since 2012 and I amÂ glad that we have got the order in ourÂ favour. In India, 1.47 lakh people diedÂ in road accidents in 2015. Nearly 40 per cent of these accidents happenedÂ because of drunken driving. This is oneÂ of the highest figures in the worldâ€ť.
There are three things that lead toÂ drunken driving; first is availabilityÂ of liquor, second is awareness aboutÂ drunken driving, and the third isÂ enforcement. We cannot expect thatÂ spreading awareness or strict lawsÂ will work when one is getting liquorÂ so easily on highways. In HimachalÂ Pradesh, there are liquor shops on aÂ highway barely metres from a dangerousÂ mountain cliff. If the availability isÂ to this extent, then the driver will surelyÂ be tempted to buy liquor. Therefore, weÂ said that liquor must not be available atÂ such places and on highways.
He expects that there will be someÂ difference after the landmark judgmentÂ of the Supreme Court. “Suppose, IÂ have to go from Mumbai to Goa by road.Â If I see a liquor shop on the highway, IÂ will be tempted to stop and buy alcohol.Â But if I donâ€™t get a shop, I will not.” ThereÂ the enforcement part comes. No countryÂ in the world allows selling of liquorÂ on highways except India. He says thatÂ he took up the case after he met with aÂ road accident 20 years ago. “I had a spinalÂ injury and I am on wheelchair since then. Since then, I am working on theÂ issue of road safety.” In India, one personÂ dies every fourth minute on the road.Â These deaths can be avoided. “In a splitÂ second my life changed forever. I metÂ with the accident near Renuka LakeÂ in Himachal Pradesh. There were fourÂ people in the car. I was in the backseat.Â I had decided to migrate to Canada aÂ week later,” he said. Â That never happened.
People drink for pleasure andÂ excitement. Whenever one drinks andÂ drives, it is for thrill and fun. They doÂ it once, and if they escape without aÂ mishap then they feel they will neverÂ commit a mistake, he says. He has filedÂ another case against substandardÂ roads being constructed in our countryÂ because of which accidents take place.Â In many cases, vehicles fall off theÂ roads. There are standards defined onÂ how roads must be constructed, butÂ this procedure is not being followedÂ appropriately. Another case whichÂ he won in Rajasthan was against theÂ availability of poppy for drivers inÂ certain areas. Those shops were shut after the court order. Indeed we needÂ good Samaritans like Harman SinghÂ Sandhu and the Supreme Court directiveÂ that no liquor stores can operateÂ within a distance of 500 metres of stateÂ and national highways in the countryÂ would go a long way in bringing downÂ the fatal accidents on highways.