11 Feb 2017

No liquor bar near National or State Highways : Supreme Court

Taking note of the "alarming statistics on the occurrence of road accidents" which "have claimed human lives and caused debility and injury". In particular taking stock of the alarming number of accidents on the rise and the policy adopted by the Union government, the Supreme Court in its judgment in State of Tamil Nadu v. K. Balu [Civil Appeal No. 12164/2016, decision dated 15.12.2016] rued that "India has a high rate of road accidents and fatal road accidents – one of the advisories states that it is the highest in the world with an accident occurring every four minutes". The Supreme Court noted, amongst others, the followings reasons requiring it to pass judicial orders into an issue which is basically within the realm of the executive;
"10. ... Human life is precious. As the road network expands in India, road infrastructure being an integral part of economic development, accidents profoundly impact on the life of the common citizen. For a nation on the cusp of economic development, India can well avoid the tag of being the accident capital of the world. Our highways are expanding, as are the expressways. They provide seamless connectivity and unheralded opportunities for the growth of trade and industry and for the movement of goods, persons and capital. They are the backbone of the freedom of trade and commerce guaranteed by Article 301 of the Constitution. Our highways are dotted with sign boards warning of the dangers of combining speed and alcohol. Together, they constitute a heady cocktail. The availability of liquor along the highways is an opportunity to consume. Easy access to liquor shops allows for drivers of vehicles to partake in alcohol, in callous disregard to their own safety and the safety of others. The advisories of the Union government to the states are founded on a logical and sound rationale.
11. We are conscious of the fact that the policy of the Union government to discontinue liquor vends on national highways may not eliminate drunken driving completely. A driver of a motor vehicle can acquire liquor even before the commencement of a journey or, during a journey at a place other than a national or state highway. The law on preventing drunken driving also requires proper enforcement. Having said this, the court must accept the policy of the Union government for more than one reason. First and foremost, it is trite law that in matters of policy, in this case a policy on safety, the court will defer to and accept a considered view formed by an expert body. Second as we have seen, this view of the Union government is based on statistics and data which make out a consistent pattern year after year. Third the existence of liquor vends on highways presents a potent source for easy availability of alcohol. The existence of liquor vends; advertisements and sign boards drawing attention to the availability of liquor coupled with the arduous drives particularly in heavy vehicles makes it abundantly necessary to enforce the policy of the Union government to safeguard human life. In doing so, the court does not fashion its own policy but enforces the right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution based on the considered view of expert bodies."
Taking note of the aforesaid position, the Supreme Court went on to declare that the prohibition under the Central Government guidelines should extend to all national and state highways. The relevant considerations were culled out by the Court in the following terms;
"20 For the reasons that we have already indicted, we have come to the conclusion that the views of the High Court of Madras and the High Court of Punjab and Haryana are unexceptionable. No distinction can be made between national and state highways in regard to the location of liquor shops. In regulating the use of national and state highways, the safety of the users of the road is of paramount concern. It would defy common sense to prohibit liquor shops along national highways while permitting them on state highways. Drunken driving as a menace and as a cause of road accidents is a phenomenon common to both national and state highways. Nor, is it a plausible defence to urge that while it is impermissible to drink and drive on a national highway, it is permissible to do so on a state highway. 
21 Moreover, we find merit in the restrictions suggested by the Punjab and Haryana High Court that the prohibition should extend not merely to the national and state highways but must be so appropriately tailored so as to ensure that the policy is not defeated by locating liquor shops in close proximity of the highway. A restriction that the shop should not be accessible or visible from the national or state highways or from a service lane along such highways is necessary to ensure that the policy is not surreptitiously violated. Our attention has been drawn during the course of the hearing to a report filed by the OSD Vigilance before the High Court indicating that the prohibition was sought to be defeated by setting up liquor vends which, though not visible from the highway, were situated in close proximity with signboards indicating their presence. The entry to the shop is camouflaged or placed at the rear portion to evade the judicial direction. ... Though, NHAI has sought the removal of these shops, “concrete action” is yet to be taken due to the lack of support from various quarters. Liquor shops, the Project Director notes, are owned by influential people making the removal of unauthorised encroachment impossible without the support of the district administration.
22 For all these reasons, we have come to the conclusion that no licences for liquor shops should be allowed both on the national and state highways. Moreover, in order to ensure that this provision is not defeated by the adoption of subterfuge, it would be necessary to direct that no exception can be carved out for the grant of liquor licences in respect of those stretches of the national or state highways which pass through the limits of any municipality corporation, city, town or local authority. Necessary safeguards must be introduced to ensure that liquor vends are not visible or directly accessible from the highway within a stipulated distance of 500 metres form the outer edge of the highway, or from a service lane along the highway.
In this background the Supreme Court passed inter alia the following directions;
(i) All states and union territories shall forthwith cease and desist from granting licences for the sale of liquor along national and state highways;
(ii) The prohibition contained in (i) above shall extend to and include stretches of such highways which fall within the limits of a municipal corporation, city, town or local authority;
(iii) The existing licences which have already been renewed prior to the date of this order shall continue until the term of the licence expires but no later than 1 April 2017;
(iv) All signages and advertisements of the availability of liquor shall be prohibited and existing ones removed forthwith both on national and state highways;
(v) No shop for the sale of liquor shall be (i) visible from a national or state highway; (ii) directly accessible from a national or state highway and (iii) situated within a distance of 500 metres of the outer edge of the national or state highway or of a service lane along the highway.
(vi) All States and Union territories are mandated to strictly enforce the above directions. The Chief Secretaries and Directors General of Police shall within one month chalk out a plan for enforcement in consultation with the state revenue and home departments. Responsibility shall be assigned inter alia to District Collectors and Superintendents of Police and other competent authorities. Compliance shall be strictly monitored by calling for fortnightly reports on action taken.
(vii) These directions issue under Article 142 of the Constitution.
We hope that this would in some way curb the menace of drunken driving and its fallouts.

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