Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist had said the law is an ass…an idiot. Faced by liquor ban, states are proving that statement of Dickens right.
In oft quoted lines from Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens had penned thus: When Mr. Bumble, the unhappy spouse of a domineering wife, is told in court that “…the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction”, replies: “If the law supposes that,” said Mr. Bumble, squeezing his hat emphatically in both hands, “the law is an ass – an idiot”. The Supreme Court order banning sale of liquor along National and State Highways is just proving that right.
The ban is expected to cost states Rs 50,000 crore in revenues. The hospitality industry could lose Rs 15,000 crore in earnings, and perhaps a million people working in this sunrise sector could lose their jobs. The ban will cause only minor inconvenience to drunk drivers, who will just go 500 metres off the highway to reach the nearest beverage.
Faced with massive loss in revenue and with lakhs of jobs at stake, States have already found loopholes to the Supreme Court dictate, making the law an ass.
States like Rajasthan and Kerala are moving to declare many state highways as village roads. Some states are even contemplating asking the Centre to denotify National Highways.
Haryana’s excise department has struck an innovative idea to show that the law can indeed be an idiot. The department has a new yardstick called `motorable distance’ that will make many bars well outside the 500 metres distance from the highway in Gurgaon.
Haryana believes that `motorable distance’ was the right yardstick because it reflects the actual distance travelled as opposed to drawing a straight line inward, as the crow flies, from the highway .
Some hotels and bars have increased the motorable distance by just shifting their doors or entry point. For example, Cyber Hub’s entry near the Rapid Metro station next to Shankar Cowk has been moved further inside Cyber City to make motorable distance a little over 1 km from NH-8. Similarly , Ambience Mall and Leela Kempinski, located right on NH-8, have shifted the entry to make their motorable distance from the highway more than 500 metres.
Some weeks back, an official from the Gurgaon excise department conducted a measurement exercise at Cyber Hub and the access to the first restaurant with a liquor licence was 513 metres from the highway, which is beyond the prescribed buffer distance.
HC Dahiya, excise commissioner, West Gurgaon, confirmed that the department “will start the process of measurement for pubs, bars, restaurants and hotels. If the motorable distance is beyond 500 metres, we will renew the licences”.
Kerala plans to sell liquor in toddy shops. After all, toddy shop is not a beverages outlet! The State is also planning to sell liquor the digital way. Already Kerala is working out a GPS type of technology to locate a liquor outlet using a smartphone.
The Supreme Court order banning establishments selling alcohol along all state and national highways has come for some sharp criticism. This is a classic case of good intentions missing the mark, said The Times of India.
Said the Indian Express in its editorial: The highway to hell is paved with good intentions. Hearing a case that originated in very worthy activism for road safety, the Supreme Court had the opportunity to move decisively against drunk driving, which contributes significantly to road mishaps in India. Instead, it chose to mow down the liquor and hospitality industries wholesale. Tourism, which the government has identified as a sector with growth potential, will be badly hit.
The court, it said, has missed the target. Surely the Supreme Court knows that the target is not drink, but the drunk at the wheel. It must be mindful of the implications of destroying jobs and denying excise duty to governments, which will be reflected in curtailed welfare schemes.
A global leader in road fatalities, second only to China, India needs to impose severe, punitive curbs on drunk drivers, instead of attacking liquor with puritanical zeal.
There is also a likelihood of illegal liquor vends proliferating along highways, leading to bigger risks to public safety. Even the man whose PIL led to the highway liquor ban Chandigarh-based activist Harman Sidhu has said he never wanted popular watering holes within city limits to shut down.