The recent order of the apex court banning the sale of alcohol within 500 m of of national and state highways is at the center of fierce criticism from the supporters of free liquor. Their arguments are based on the grounds of revenue losses, the adverse impact on the hospitality industry and loss of jobs. They have also questioned the Supreme Court for being moralistic impractical and guilty of judicial overreach. What such criticism fails to understand, however, is that the Supreme Court does not make laws- it is call upon to only interpret them. The judiciary is not expected to by pass Article 47 of the Constitution with its unequivocally clear directive that " the state shall endeavor to bring about prohibition of the consumption except for medicinal purposes of intoxication drinks and of drugs which are injurious to health." Since the 1950s the courts have interpreted Article 47 to develop a body of jurisprudence that puts alcohol in the category of res extra commercial, that is, no industry can claim a fundamental right to deal in this substance. The rights as well as the duty lies with the government to regulate the supply for liquor through licensing and other mechanisms.
Tomorrow, liquor-supporters could well start a campaign to repeal Article 47, but as long as it remains on the stature books, the courts are well within their jurisdiction to interpret and implement the same.
These same liquor supporters were pretty loud in their criticism of Bihar's prohibition policy. At that time, they posed as "regulations" - regulate alcohol instead of banning it, they said. We would request the liquor- supporters, many who consider themselves part of the liberal intelligentsia, to take this opportunity ot spell out their idea of regulation. How much liquor on a high- way, or in an area generally, would be too much? Or are they fo3 absolute free flow of alcohol, at all times and everywhere?
The apex court orders has started a deluge of statistical analyses about the exact percentage of highway accidents caused due ot drunken driving, the annual numbers of casualties and injuries resulting therefore, etc. and the figures from various sources contract each other. We did this debate around numbers interesting, yet pointless. A sensitive society ought to consider even one such death too many. One could take a cue from the Swedish parliament which has adopted a Road Traffic Safety Bill, advocating "Vision zero"-creating a system wherein eventually, deaths and injuries due to road accidents would be reduced to a zero. A more pertinent question of whether removal of liquor vends from highways in the effective was of curbing accidents due to drunken driving.
The global policy to Reduce the Harmful Use of Alcohol published by WHO considers regulation strategies as one of the "essential measures that prevent easy access to alcohol by vulnerable and high-risk group". While it is true that habitual drinkers are not going to be deterred by the distance of 500 m, the apex courts order sends a signal that the state should everything in its power to ensure that alcohol is not effortlessly available on either side of the highways. All states have excise policies that do no allow liquor educational institutions, bus stand, etc.
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