Concerned over 1.5 lakh fatalities every year in road mishaps, the Supreme Court on Wednesday said it may direct closure of liquor vend on national and state highways across the nation, besides removal of the signages indicating their location.
The apex court, while reserving verdict on a batch of pleas seeking a direction to amend excise laws to ensure that no liquor is sold alongside highways, came down heavily on the Punjab government for seeking relaxation and permitting liquor shops near highways if they are “elevated” ones and the vend are under or near it.
“Look at the number of licences you (Punjab) have given. Because the liquor lobby is so powerful, everyone is happy.
The excise department is happy, the excise minister is happy and the state government is also happy that they are making money. If a person dies due to this, you give Rs 1 or 1.5 lakh. That is it. You should take a stand which is helpful for the society,” the bench headed by Chief Justice T S Thakur said.
Reminding the state government of its constitutional obligation to prohibit liquor sale, the bench, also comprising Justices D Y Chandrachud and L Nageswara Rao, said, “You are speaking the language of liquor vendors… Is this your endeavour to seek prohibition. Nearly 1.5 lakh people die every year…We are asking you to do something for the general public.”
The bench also expressed its unhappiness over alleged inaction by various states in removing liquor shops alongside roads which leads to drunken driving and consequential fatalities.
It said that revenue generation cannot be a “valid reason” for a state or a Union territory to give licence for liquor shops on highways and the authorities should adopt a positive attitude to remove the menace.
The court also rapped the Centre for not doing anything concrete leading it to “step in”. “Government of India is now saying that the liquor shops (on the national and state highways) should be removed. For the last 10 years, nothing has happened and that is why we have stepped in,” the bench said.
Earlier, the court had sought response from the Centre, states and Union territories on the pleas seeking a direction to amend excise laws to ensure that no liquor is sold alongside highways.
During the hearing, the bench was in disagreement with the suggestion of the Justice (Retd) K S Radhakrishnan committee on road safety that there should not be a liquor shop within 100-metre range of a highway.
“We do not understand this 100-metre business. The people will park their vehicles on highways and go to the liquor shops,” it said. The bench indicated that either there should not be any liquor shops near highways or there should not be “signages or hoardings or visible advertisements” indicating address of such shops.
“Today we are examining whether we can direct closure of all liquor shops on highways or they should be 100 metres away from such highways,” it said at the outset. There are several pleas pending in the apex court on the issue. One of the pleas has referred to the 2015 report of the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways and said that almost 5 lakh accidents occurred last year in India, killing 1,46,000 people and leaving thrice the number injured.
It has been alleged that despite the recommendation of a committee to ban of sale of alcohol on state and national highway, states like Andhra Pradesh and Telangana were sticking to their prevailing excise policies under which licences were being issued to liquor shops along the highways.