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How Punjab govt is bending rules to allow sale of liquor on highways overlooking SC order?
Focus needs to shift to stricter vigilance and curbing drunk driving rather than banning liquor.

Before delivering its judgment, the Supreme Court has perhaps not considered the exact reasons behind the deaths in road accidents which is being stated to be the main motive behind banning the sale of liquor on the national and state highways.

A total ban was imposed on the sale of liquor around all national and state highways by the Supreme Court in its recent judgment. Now, no liquor vend can function within 500 metres of a national or state highway throughout the country. The measure was taken due to the fact that drunk driving is one of the major causes of road accidents in the country.

The Punjab government even found a way to reduce the effect of Supreme Court's order banning sale or serving of liquor within 500 metres of national and state highways. The state government has denotified 12 such highway stretches that pass through cities and towns but for which bypasses have already been built.

Due to the ban, the state excise and taxation department that governs liquor sale had to comprehend with a loss of Rs 1,300 crore in revenue this fiscal. But now, the denotified highway stretches have offered some respite, though that would be quantifiable only later.

The seven state highway stretches denotified by the Public Works Department (PWD) are in the districts SAS Nagar, Pathankot, Moga, Hoshiarpur, Patiala, Fatehgarh Sahib, and Nawanshahr.

However, the notification says, "The government over the years constructed a number of bypasses on state highways to decongest select cities. As a consequence, the bypassed parts of these highways passing through the cities are no more required to be state highways."

However, a look at the 2015 report on road accidents by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH), however, seems to suggest that drunk driving only forms the tip of the iceberg when it comes to road accidents. The share of accidents caused due to consumption of alcohol/drugs constituted only a small percentage – 3.3 per cent – of all road accidents (16,298 out of 5,01,423 accidents) and 4.6 per cent of fatalities (6,755 out of 1,46,133 deaths). This means that over 96 per cent of road accidents were caused not by drunk drivers but by sober people.

In the eyes of Supreme Court it might be acting in public interest, as a guardian of people's rights but its powers are free-for-all. Such outright overreach can prove problematic for the entire system of governance in the country, as far as adversely affecting generation of excise revenue and large scale unemployment. It looks that these concerns were considered secondary to public health and safety by the apex court.

But, at the same time, the decision of the Punjab government to allow the sale of liquor on denotified streches of highways is an unscrupulous attempt to bypass and overlook the orders of the Supreme Court.

Added here, recently the Punjab Cabinet approved an amendment in the Punjab Excise Amendment Bill 2017 –changing the definition of 'sale of liquor' –allowing the sale of liquor at hotels, restaurant and clubs, within 500 metres of national highways. Evidently, a backdoor entry to counter the apex court's judgment by interpreting that the ban was on liquor shops and not on hotels, restaurants and clubs. It is not understood as to whether this will be digestible by the court or not, but the motive behind the amendment is clear as sale of liquor is one of the major sources of revenue for the state. It could be measured from the fact that around Rs 2600 crore was raised by the state government in the recent auction of liquor vends.

It's not just the state of Punjab that is facing problems with the order of the SC. In certain states, there is a practical problem like Himachal Pradesh where the orders of the court cannot be implemented. Being a hilly state,opening liquor vends at a distance of 500 metres from highways is practically impossible. Rather, many liquor shops would have to be shut down for implementing the order.

India is number one in terms of road accidents. As per 2015 data, on an average, about 400 people die every day in road accidents and the figures show an increasing trend. While some are seriously injured, some become permanently handicapped in accidents. There are multiple reasons behind road accidents which include high speed driving, violation of traffic rules while overtaking, bad road conditions, insufficiently lit roads, etc. Taking the wheel after drinking is one of the major emerging reasons for road accidents which has shown an increasing trend.

Let me also share that ArriveSafe – a leading NGO based at Chandigarh – which was one of the petitioners in the case for getting sale of liquor near highways banned, is not impressed by Punjab government's recent order. The NGO, after thorough study of the bill passed by the state government, will decide future course of action and move the court if necessary.

Frankly speaking, this nefarious act of flouting court orders and interpreting law as per suitability of the state government shows a total disregard for the judiciary.

What available statistics seem to suggest is that the focus needs to shift to stricter vigilance on roads by the traffic police and a need to put a curb on drunk driving, rather than advocating liquor ban. But at the same time, in a country like India where road rage, bribery and blatant disregard for traffic rules are the norms, stopping the menace of drunk driving seems a bit outlandish.

No doubt, most argue that bribery might never go away, no matter what is done. But in that case, we need to leverage more upon the new technology of this high-tech era. Automated road camera systems can be developed for highways with provision of sending challans to offenders directly on their smartphones or through email without any need of police intervention.

On a suggestive note, instead of crushing businesses and industries that rely heavily on the availability of alcohol, the need of the hour is to focus on alcohol abuse prevalent on our roads.

Editorial NOTE: This article is categorized under Opinion Section. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of merinews.com. In case you have a opposing view, please click here to share the same in the comments section.
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