Relaxing its ban on liquor shops along national and state highways, the Supreme Court Friday said that cities, towns and municipal areas with a population of 20,000 or less could have alcohol vends beyond a range of 220m from highways and not 500m as decided earlier. But it virtually overruled Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi’s legal opinion rendered to the Kerala government, in which the law officer had said that the court-ordered ban on liquor vends within 500m of state and national highways would not apply to pubs, bars, hotels and restaurants that serve alcohol.
The bench, also comprising Justices D Y Chandrachud and L Nageswara Rao, held that letting bars and restaurants serve alcohol within a 500m-range of national highways would defeat the very purpose of its order of December 15, 2016, whereby the court sought to curb drunken driving. Sikkim and Meghalaya, where almost 90 per cent of liquor shops were to be closed because their relocation was not possible due to topographical constraints, have been completely exempt from this directive by the court.
Last December, the court ordered closure of all liquor shops along national and state highways if they were within a range of 500m from the edge of such highways, and directed governments to “cease and desist” from issuing excise licenses after March 31. A bench led by Chief Justice of India J S Khehar reduced the limit from 500m to 200m for “municipal corporation, city, town or local authority” provided the population was 20,000 or less after noting that the entire township might fall within the 500m-range.
In its 2016-order, the bench had also held that all existing licenses to sell liquor would expire on April 1 and that fresh licenses would be granted only after such vends relocate and comply with court-mandated stipulations. Modifying this direction, the bench Friday said that subsisting licenses could operate till September 30 since it has come to the notice of the court that not all states granted excise licenses for a period between April 1 and March 30, and that there were variance in the time period of such licenses.
The court noted that people had already made investments in getting the licenses and a state like Telangana issued its licenses in November 2016 — less than a month before the prohibition was imposed. The operation of liquor vends, however, will subject to their meeting the condition of their limits from the highways.
The Tamil Nadu government, said the bench, will not get any relaxation regarding the extension of licenses till September 30 since liquor shops are run by the state government, which had agreed to comply with the April 1 deadline.
In its 2016 order, the court had asked police and municipal authorities to make sure that all liquor vends are closed permanently within the deadline. It also ordered removal of signages or boards indicating their location and held that no such vend can be allowed within a 100m range of a highway. The bench had further directed chief secretaries and police chiefs of all state governments to chalk out a plan after deliberations with excise and municipal authorities to ensure strict compliance with its directives.
It underlined that the directives were being issued in public interest since the lives of millions were at stake and that state governments had failed to come on board for a uniform policy to ban liquor vends along highways. Reminding the state governments of their Constitutional obligation to prohibit liquor sale, the bench had said that revenue generation cannot be the sole ground to let these vends continue along highways at the risk of giving rise to drunken driving and consequential fatalities.
Several states, including Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, and the federation of hotel and restaurants associations had sought modifications in the order on various grounds. During the hearing, most of the parties had requested the court to defer the implementation of its order — the states submitted that the order would hit their excise revenue.