Insights into Editorial: Liquor drives State Highways to turn local
From April 1, the sale of alcohol has been banned along national highways in India, following a Supreme Court order directing states to revoke commercial liquor licences. The move is expected to severely hit liquor and wine shops to tourist establishments, as well as hundreds of local bars and pubs in several metros.
- Late last year, the Supreme Court passed an order banning the sale of alcohol along national and state highways, ordering the cancellation of liquor licences issued to shops by April 1, 2017.
- The order states that no liquor stores should be even visible from highways, or located within a distance of 500 metres of the highways, or be directly accessible from a national or state highway.
- The order has been subsequently modified to exempt establishments within 220 metres of the highways for smaller towns and municipalities with a population of less than 20,000 people.
Significance of this ban:
The order reaffirms a policy decision of the union government that goes back more than 10 years. In 2004, the National Road Safety Council (NRSC) unanimously agreed that licences for liquor shops should not to be given along the national highways, and the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) has “consistently” advised state governments not to issue fresh licences and remove liquor shops from national highways.
Why the ban?
- The order is aimed at tackling the rising menace of drunk driving as well as improving road safety conditions in India. The court cited “alarming” statistics showing drunk driving-related accidents and deaths, and said the order is in “overwhelming public interest.”
- Citing data from the Union Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, the Supreme Court noted that in 2015, intake of alcohol or drugs by drivers resulted in 16,298 road accidents (4.2% of total accidents) and 6,755 fatalities (6.4% of total accidents) where drivers were at fault.
- The court also said data showing low incidence of drunk driving often tends to be skewed and “under-reported” as a cause of accidents, as that can affect the claims of victims or their heirs to accident compensation.
Implications of this move:
- Needless to say such closures will lead to enormous losses to business and tourism, which will translate into jobs lost as well as huge revenue losses for state governments which could have been spent on people’s welfare.
- The uncertainty of India’s business climate will deter investment from coming to India. And given the number of livelihoods at stake it’s more than likely that illegal liquor vends will proliferate along highways, leading to bigger risks to public safety.
- For example, the excise collection from liquor, which undergoes high “sin” taxes, helps prop up state revenues, which in Tamil Nadu’s case, where liquor sale is a state monopoly, is as much as Rs 26,000 crores annually, and offsets the high cost of freebies and other state-run social programmes.
- According to early estimates, states and hospitality companies could see a loss of Rs 65,000 crores, and as many as 1 million jobs could go as a result of the ban.
The move was expected to severely hit liquor and wine shops to tourist establishments, as well as hundreds of local bars and pubs in several metros. However, some states are coming up with alternative plans to circumvent the idea. How?
- Some States are now re-classifying State Highways into local roads. The Rajasthan government passed an order recently to convert a portion of their State Highway roads passing through populous areas into urban and district roads.
- Similarly, the Chandigarh administration issued a notification on March 16 to convert a significant portion of its State Highways into major district roads (MDRs).
- The State government can issue a notification to convert State Highways into district roads. However, the de-notification of national highways can only be affected by the Union Road Transport and Highways Ministry.
- The implications of converting National Highways into State Highways would certainly be significant. The maintenance responsibility in such cases will shift to the States, which lack the capacity in some cases, compared to Central authorities.
What is the need of the hour?
Policing should improve on highways to tackle drunken driving. State governments should be directed to allocate more resources for this purpose. Only constant checking of drivers and punishment for offenders can deter those who drink and drive.
Other issues associated with this move:
- Why ban only liquor shops and exempt bars that serve wine, whisky, brandy, etc, which contain 15 to 50% alcohol? Any alcohol, when drunk in sufficient quantity, blurs judgement and dulls reflexes. Hence, all opportunities for drinking must be removed from the highways.
- If alcohol is harmful on the roads, is it safe elsewhere? Is alcohol an innocent drink? WHO attributes 200 types of diseases to alcohol with an estimated annual 3.3 million deaths globally, and a loss of a total of 140 million life-years. Alcohol kills more people than HIV.
- But why fuss about people occasionally indulging in a peg or two? According to the WHO Statistical Report 2015, the annual per adult consumption of absolute alcohol in India is four litres — about 400-500 drinks per year. As only 20% of adults in India drink, their per head annual consumption is 2,500 to 3,000 drinks. Think about the impact on those who consume alcohol, and those around them.
- What about the individual’s freedom of choice to drink? Yes, but what makes this free choice? The brain. Alcohol influences the brain and compromises its ability to make a reasoned choice. After the first drink, it is alcohol which is dictating choice, not the brain. In the case of alcohol, the idea of free choice is a myth. Alcohol takes away our ability and, thereby our freedom, to make a choice. Abstaining from alcohol protects our freedom of choice.
- The issue is not simply the freedom of choice of drinkers; it is also the freedom of life, safety and dignity, of family income and the productivity of other people. Hence, the issue is in the realm of social policy. Regarding prohibition, the obligation of the state is enshrined in the constitution of India.
Following the ban, several individual and state applications have filed appeals against the ban. However as of March 31, only eight states had moved the court. The Supreme Court has said it will continue to hear appeals against the order.
Many states including Andhra Pradesh, Punjab, Goa, and Maharashtra have reportedly asked the central government to reclassify some highways or highway stretches as urban roads to bypass the order. Many states that rely on tourism contend that it will affect revenues and tourism industry.
The Supreme Court order banning establishments selling alcohol along all state and national highways is a classic case of good intentions missing the mark. The apex court directive is certainly well meant. It stems from the desire to curb drunken driving that kills thousands of people each year on our highways. But a blanket ban on all liquor outlets is a sweeping and radical measure, throwing out the baby with the bath water. While the move’s impact on drunken driving is likely to be marginal, the ban puts thousands of valid businesses employing lakhs of people at risk.
Blanket bans and prohibition-like decrees, whether from judiciary or legislature, only make the problem worse. In this case they will injure the economy and cripple the tourism industry – which happens to be the sector that produces the most jobs per rupee invested. The apex court must reconsider its decision.