Concerned over the adverse impact of the Supreme Court order to close down liquor shops, bars and restaurants within 500 metres of the national and state highways from April 1 on employment, tourism and state revenue, the state government is contemplating filing an appeal to seek relaxation. The SC order will lead to closure of over 2,000 bars, restaurants and liquor outlets, out of the total 11,000 liquor serving or selling outlets in the state. However, the bureaucracy would perhaps wait for swearing-in of the new government in mid-March for filing of appeal. Though the apex court order came in mid-December last, no urgency was shown by the state government to challenge it. The problem has been compounded by the model code of conduct coming into effect from January 4 and likely to be in force till March 15. The warning by the liquor trade body to block traffic if the order is implemented probably fills in the long gap and uncertainty about the state government action.
The state excise department has started a survey of how many liquor serving and selling outlets are likely to be affected by the SC order. It is surprising that the state excise authorities did not have the exact data of the bars, restaurants and liquor outlets located along the highways and had to carry out a survey. Though it is mandatory for the licensing authorities to physically verify the places where the permission for selling liquor was sought, the survey might give the impression that the licences were issued without carrying out proper checks and maintaining proper records. There is also possibility that the licences were obtained showing some other locations to hoodwink the law and shifted along the highways. The survey is to be conducted by the teams led by mamlatdars of each taluka and there is possibility that the same could be delayed as most of the staff from the concerned departments – public works, land survey, excise and panchayat – is still at the disposal of the Election Commission.
No doubt there is going to be severe impact on the liquor business, tourism and employment if the businesses are closed down with effect from April 1. The state authorities need to take up the matter before the Supreme Court well before the deadline. Any last-minute attempt may not yield the desired results and the closure of liquor selling establishments would cause unrest in various sections, including those who are to lose their jobs. It is unlikely that anyone should object to preferring an appeal in the apex court to seek relaxation or modification of the court order. The caretaker government could seek legal opinion on whether it had the powers to appeal before the SC in view of model code of conduct in force. If necessary, the government could seek relaxation from the Election Commission of India as the voting is already over in the state and there is no likelihood of the appeal benefitting anyone now. The authorities should not wait for the formation of a new government to decide on whether to go in for appeal or not. If there is a last-minute appeal and the same is rejected by the SC, the authorities would have no time to carry out the apex court orders and any delay or lapse by them could invite contempt of court proceedings against them.
The apex court order is aimed at bringing down the numbers of deaths on roads, many of whom are victims of drunken driving. Over 1.5 lakh people die annually on the roads in the country. The presumption is that while the closure of liquor selling and serving outlets along the highways might not totally prevent people from drinking it would make it difficult for them to access the liquor vends a bit difficult, which in turn could help in prevention of accidents and reduction in the number of deaths. With the date for implementation of the SC order approaching fast and the liquor sellers adopting a combative stance the only course left before the state government is to present a reasonably argued case before the apex court. Of course, Goa would not find it easy to convince the apex court to make an exception in its case: for the first question the SC will ask is why they should exempt Goa from the order when it is applicable to all other states. Besides, the cause of saving lives on highways is a human and rightful cause. It would be good if the state government, while preparing to appeal, asks the excise department to prepare for the implementation of the apex court order in case the appeal is turned down.