The driver is safer when the roads are dry; the roads are safer when the driver is dry” aptly narrates the enormity of the menace of drunken driving. The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) global status report on road safety demonstrates that 1.25 million people die due to road accidents every year. But surprisingly, only seven per cent of the world’s population is protected by appropriate traffic laws—mandatory use of helmets, seat belts and protective devices for children in vehicles, prohibition of driving under the influence of alcohol, speed control and laws forbidding the use of mobile phones while driving.
India is a signatory to the Brasilia Declaration on Road Safety, so it is imperative that policy guidelines are framed in compliance with the said declaration. Similarly, the excise policy of Indian states and union territories cry for amendments so that they conform to the spirit of Article 47 and Article 21 of the Constitution.
The neglect and failure on the part of government agencies nurture the soil for judicial intervention. The recent directive of the Supreme Court banning liquor shops near highways is certainly well meant. The Centre and several states, including Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, have accepted the verdict and about eighteen other states and union territories didn’t contest the decision.
The apex court’s March 31 order, which largely confirmed its earlier December 15, 2016, judgment (The State of Tamil Nadu vs K Balu) with certain modifications, shows that the ban was due to the court’s “overarching concern for public health”. The verdict, though it appears to be ham-handed, stems from the desire to curb drunken driving that kills thousands each year on our highways.
A 2015 government report reveals around 1,374 accidents and 400 deaths take place every day on Indian roads. The report further says around 40 per cent of the road accidents occur under the influence of alcohol. Hence, the overwhelming justification for judicial intervention flows from the need to enforce the fundamental right to lead a life of dignity and self-worth.
The judgment observes that “in terms of personal suffering caused to individuals and families as well as in terms of deprivation caused to society of its productive social capital, road accidents impose unacceptable costs”. A blanket ban on all liquor outlets operating within 500 metres of highways, 220 metres for towns with a population of 20,000 or less, is a sweeping measure. Needless to say, such closures will lead to enormous losses to business and tourism, and cause loss of jobs coupled with huge revenue losses for state governments. According to an industry body estimate, the collective revenue loss from the ban could be around Rs. 65,000 crore and the states which are dependent on tourism are the worst hit.
However, the court has categorically observed that revenue generation could not be a “valid reason” for a state or union territory to give licenses to liquor shops on highways. The directive is being criticised on the grounds that while most National Highways fall within the jurisdiction of the Centre, the rest of the roads come under the states. But the court’s ban wipes out the state legislations at one stroke, even though many states were not present during the deliberations. Further, the 500-metre limit has come out of the court’s imagination and lacks balance and perspective. The direct impact of all those negatives will be reflected in the balance sheet of companies operating in the hospitality sector, liquor manufacturers, FMCG firms and real estate developers. There could be a knee-jerk effect on the growth of the industries engaged in this sector but the economics cannot be allowed to overshadow the morbidity of the social cost.
The WHO has suggested that one sure way to deter drinking is to curb the easy availability of alcohol. Banning liquor shops is not the only approach to reduce highway accidents and hence a holistic approach is needed. It is a fact that our highways lack some sort of preliminary road safety measures including first aid and emergency services. It is ironic that while we have numerous liquor shops, motels, fun parks, and petrol pumpsspread over the highways, there are scarcely any trauma centres. Though the apex court judgment is criticised on the basis of sheer economics, the deterrent effect cannot be ignored. A strong deterrent mechanism, strict enforcement supplemented with education, implementation of some of the strictest laws with a trained and dedicated team, the use of breath analyser in a scientific manner, the introduction of random checks and increasing the current penalty levels will moderate the challenge of drunken driving. Measures such as increasing the legal drinking age, restricting the availability of alcohol to limited timings and controlling the unabated promotion of alcohol too may be promising. Retiring rooms with good facilities along the highways, professionalism in driver training, advanced licensing systems, and better coordination among the law enforcing agencies and the medicos may yield good results.
Though the court was conscious of the fact that discontinuation of liquor vends on highways will not eliminate the problem, it nevertheless is a giant step towards curbing the menace of alcohol-related accidents. The blameworthiness of the judicial overreach may be dispelled on four grounds—the Centre’s policy, expert opinion based on statistics, repetition of the Centre’s advisory and an indication from the Parliament. The court has not fashioned its own policy but enforced the right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution based on the considered view of expert bodies.
Dr Yogesh Pratap Singh is an Associate Professor of Law at NLU Odisha and is currently on deputation as Deputy Registrar, Supreme Court. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sanjeeb Panigrahi is a Supreme Court advocate