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Escape Route for Drinkers In Supreme Court Order

THE Supreme Court order to shut down all liquor shops on state and national highways by March 31, 2017 could have a major adverse impact on the liquor business and state economy. Two national highways pass through the state – NH 17 (changed to NH 66) and NH 4A (changed to NH 748) covering a distance of 224 kilometres. There are 232 kilometres of state highways touching major towns. The state excise department has issued over 11,100 licences for sale of liquor, of which 60 per cent outlets (including bars, restaurants, retail liquor shop and wholesale outlets) are roughly estimated to be within the 500-metre radius of a state or national highway. The SC order was passed on the public interest litigation cases seeking ban on bars along the highways as drunken driving has led to killing of thousands of people in accidents. As it is an apex court order, the state excise department has to take steps to implement it. The department would issue notices to the liquor vendors within the 500 metres of the state and national highways to inform them of the apex court order to close their outlets by March 31, 2017.
However, it is certain that both the state government and the trade body of the liquor vendors would try their best to seek some, if not full, exemption for Goa. For, if the apex court order is to be implemented it will lead to the closure of not only of bars and liquor outlets but also of hundreds of restaurants that have come up along the state and national highways. They cater both to tourists and resident Goans. Shifting them away could lead to substantial fall in their clientele affecting their earnings. Liquor business contributes around Rs 315 crore to the state exchequer annually. Full implementation of the apex order therefore would burn a hole in the pockets of the state government which is already facing other constraints on growth, such as curbs on mining and the projected revenue losses resulting from disruption of the businesses owing to demonetization. It would have adverse impact on developmental activities, employment generation and implementation of welfare schemes.
Chief Minister Laxmikant Parsekar has said that the government would seek the advice of the advocate general on the issue. As the state government plans to seek specific relaxation for Goa it has to present its case in such a way that it satisfies the apex court or its attempts could meet the same fate as that of Punjab, which came under severe criticism of the Supreme Court for seeking relaxation and permitting liquor shops close to highways. Having rejected the appeal of Punjab it is unlikely that the apex court would grant any relaxation to any state, on the grounds of attracting tourists. With the apex court order the stage has been set for effective implementation of the Brasilia Declaration, to which India is a signatory and for concomitant framing of guidelines to control road accidents. It remains to be seen how strictly the state implements the apex court order. There is a court order for removing religious structures built in the middle of roads or by the roadside. But it has hardly been implemented. It would be risky for the state to allow liquor outlets by state and national highways in a similar manner, for that could be brought to the court’s notice. The government cannot afford to wait for the last moment to carry out the order. It has to begin planning straightaway as shifting of liquor shops and restaurants cannot happen overnight because it would require access, infrastructure, etc, which too would have to be within the laws governing issue of permits to sell liquor. Besides, given the fact the lens of the topmost court of the country was on sale of liquor the authorities have to take extra care to ensure that they do not flout any law to accommodate the needs of the powerful liquor lobby, which till now had had its way in having the law on their side.
With the passing of the Supreme Court order a beginning for curtailing the number of road accidents and subsequent deaths has been made. All that is needed now is the will of the state authorities to strictly implement the order. However, it cannot be said for sure whether shifting bars away from the highways alone would lead to lesser number of accidents. Drivers can consume liquor in home, a restaurant, a bar or even inside a car away from state or national highway and then drive along the highways to cause accidents. Where the Supreme Court has erred is in not making police checks on drunken driving along highways constant and haunting integral to its order.

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