The Supreme Court has admonished¬†the Punjab Government,¬†which had sought¬†a relaxation for liquor shops¬†near ‚Äúelevated‚ÄĚ highways,¬†saying, ‚ÄúLook at the number¬†of licences you (Punjab) have given.¬†Because the liquor lobby is so powerful,¬†everyone is happy. The Excise Department¬†is happy, the Excise Minister is¬†happy and the state government is also¬†happy that they are making money. If a¬†person dies due to this, you give Rs 1 or Rs 1.5¬†lakh. That is it. You should take a stand¬†which is helpful for society.‚ÄĚ
Strong words indeed, but fully justified.¬†The state government deserves the¬†reprimand. Every state has a constitutional¬†obligation to prohibit liquor sale¬†but states disregard it despite the fact¬†that some 1.5 lakh people die every year¬†in road accidents caused, among other¬†factors, by drunk driving. One of the¬†petitions pointed out that nearly 1,400¬†accidents and 400 deaths take place¬†every day on Indian roads, which means¬†17 deaths every hour.
The Supreme Court directed that¬†no liquor stores can operate within¬†a distance of 500 metres of state and¬†national highways in the country.¬†‚ÄúRelocate existing stores and remove all¬†advertisement of such stores,‚ÄĚ a bench¬†comprising Chief Justice of India TS¬†Thakur, Justice DY Chandrachud and¬†Justice¬†L Nageswara Rao said, while delivering¬†the verdict.
The ruling came after a plea filed by¬†Tamil Nadu challenging the constitutional¬†validity of a circular issued by the central government on April 22 asking¬†state governments to shut liquor shops along highways. Tamil Nadu contended that such a circular by the ministry of¬†road transport and highways can only¬†be applicable to national highways and¬†not state highways. The apex court has disagreed with this view. The Centre‚Äôs¬†circular came after an alarming rise¬†in number of drink-driving cases on¬†highways.
A committed leadership in Bihar has¬†imposed prohibition despite the state‚Äôs¬†dire financial condition. The bench has¬†rightly observed that revenue generation¬†cannot be a ‚Äúvalid reason‚ÄĚ for a state¬†or a Union Territory to issue licences¬†for liquor shops on highways. The top court has not only ordered a ban on all liquor shops on national and state¬†highways across the country, but also¬†prohibited the renewal of licences of¬†existing shops after March 31 this year. The liquor business are run largely by¬†politicians or their acolytes. It thrives on¬†account of favourable excise policies.
The Punjab and Haryana High Court too¬†have made efforts to shift liquor vends¬†from highways but the liquor lobby has¬†managed to dodge the court directions.¬†They shut shops during the day only to reopen them at night. The order on the¬†non-renewal of the licences and removal¬†of all signboards and shops leaves no¬†room for keeping intact even make-shift¬†liquor structures after March.
The Supreme Court has done what¬†normally is the duty of the states and the¬†Centre. The three-member bench headed¬†by Chief Justice TS Thakur acted on a¬†number of petitions seeking a direction¬†to amend the state excise laws to¬†ensure that no liquor was sold alongside¬†highways. Generating revenue, said the
court, cannot be a ‚Äúvalid reason‚ÄĚ for governments¬†to allow liquor shops along¬†the highway. The man who fought¬†against the liquor shops on highways is¬†Harman Singh Sandhu He was going to¬†migrate to Canada when he met with¬†an accident on October 24, 1996. He¬†was with his friends to Renuka Lake in Himachal Pradesh when his car fell¬†into a gorge.
They survived the accident and¬†all came out safely. But Sindhu suffered¬†a spinal injury and has been on
a wheelchair since then. ‚ÄúIn India, one¬†person dies every fourth minute in¬†road accidents, which is the highest in¬†he world,‚ÄĚ he told after the Supreme¬†Court upheld his plea and ruled that¬†from April 1, 2017, there will be no liquor¬†shop on national and state highways.¬†He said that ‚ÄúWe all know that drunken driving is one of the major reasons for¬†road accidents.
And one of the reasons why it is¬†rampant, is the easy availability on¬†national and state highways. In states¬†like Punjab, Haryana and Himachal¬†Pradesh, one can find one or two liquor¬†shops every two kilometres. If liquor¬†is available so easily, then you cannot¬†control drunken driving. Therefore, we petitioned against these liquor shops¬†on the highways. We mentioned in¬†our petition that a driver should not be¬†tempted to buy alcohol. We have been¬†fighting this case since 2012 and I am¬†glad that we have got the order in our¬†favour. In India, 1.47 lakh people died¬†in road accidents in 2015. Nearly 40 per cent of these accidents happened¬†because of drunken driving. This is one¬†of the highest figures in the world‚ÄĚ.
There are three things that lead to¬†drunken driving; first is availability¬†of liquor, second is awareness about¬†drunken driving, and the third is¬†enforcement. We cannot expect that¬†spreading awareness or strict laws¬†will work when one is getting liquor¬†so easily on highways. In Himachal¬†Pradesh, there are liquor shops on a¬†highway barely metres from a dangerous¬†mountain cliff. If the availability is¬†to this extent, then the driver will surely¬†be tempted to buy liquor. Therefore, we¬†said that liquor must not be available at¬†such places and on highways.
He expects that there will be some¬†difference after the landmark judgment¬†of the Supreme Court. “Suppose, I¬†have to go from Mumbai to Goa by road.¬†If I see a liquor shop on the highway, I¬†will be tempted to stop and buy alcohol.¬†But if I don‚Äôt get a shop, I will not.” There¬†the enforcement part comes. No country¬†in the world allows selling of liquor¬†on highways except India. He says that¬†he took up the case after he met with a¬†road accident 20 years ago. “I had a spinal¬†injury and I am on wheelchair since then. Since then, I am working on the¬†issue of road safety.” In India, one person¬†dies every fourth minute on the road.¬†These deaths can be avoided. “In a split¬†second my life changed forever. I met¬†with the accident near Renuka Lake¬†in Himachal Pradesh. There were four¬†people in the car. I was in the backseat.¬†I had decided to migrate to Canada a¬†week later,” he said. ¬†That never happened.
People drink for pleasure and¬†excitement. Whenever one drinks and¬†drives, it is for thrill and fun. They do¬†it once, and if they escape without a¬†mishap then they feel they will never¬†commit a mistake, he says. He has filed¬†another case against substandard¬†roads being constructed in our country¬†because of which accidents take place.¬†In many cases, vehicles fall off the¬†roads. There are standards defined on¬†how roads must be constructed, but¬†this procedure is not being followed¬†appropriately. Another case which¬†he won in Rajasthan was against the¬†availability of poppy for drivers in¬†certain areas. Those shops were shut after the court order. Indeed we need¬†good Samaritans like Harman Singh¬†Sandhu and the Supreme Court directive¬†that no liquor stores can operate¬†within a distance of 500 metres of state¬†and national highways in the country¬†would go a long way in bringing down¬†the fatal accidents on highways.