Is the Supreme Court order on alcohol sale a case of judicial overreach? | columns | Hindustan Times
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Is the Supreme Court order on alcohol sale a case of judicial overreach?

After all, people can still drink 10 feet further away and drive dangerously. What’s needed is better prosecution and, perhaps, more stringent punishment. Not a knee-jerk and contradictory prohibition.

columns Updated: Apr 08, 2017 23:40 IST

A hotel closed near the NH2 in Kolkata after the Supreme Court’s ban on sale of liquor within 500 metres of national and state highways. The Supreme Court was approached to tackle the problem of drinking and driving. But is a ban on the sale or consumption of alcohol 500 metres from a highway the answer? After all, people can still drink 10 feet further away and drive dangerously. (Samir Jana/HT PHOTO)

They say the top court is supreme not because it’s infallible but because it’s final. There’s no appeal beyond it. You can only ask the court to reconsider. This has been manifestly proven by its recent reiteration of a ban on the sale and consumption of alcohol within a 500 metres distance of national and state highways.

What’s worse is it came from a three-judge bench headed by the Chief Justice. And almost unbelievably the order can be found fault with at multiple levels. So many it’s embarrassing!

First, should judges decide where alcohol can be consumed and sold or is that for the executive to determine? The Supreme Court lawyer C. Aryama Sundaram asks: “How can 30 wise but unelected people exercise powers akin to legislation?” In his view the Court has over-reached itself.

No doubt Article 142 empowers the Supreme Court to pass orders for “complete justice in any cause or matter pending before it” but can you credibly argue that deciding where you can and cannot drink falls within this ambit?

Aakar Patel, the Head of Amnesty, makes a strong moral case against the Court. The state must assume its citizens will drink responsibly whilst retaining the capacity to prosecute them when they don’t. The Supreme Court, however, has assumed citizens are irresponsible. Were the judges right to act on this premise?

Their argument is that safety is supreme. In which case why have they made an exception for mountainous north-eastern states? Does safety not apply there? Surely it’s inconsistent and contradictory to be concerned about safety in the plains but not in the hills?

The truth is the Supreme Court was approached to tackle the problem of drinking and driving. But is a ban on the sale or consumption of alcohol 500 metres from a highway the answer? After all, people can still drink 10 feet further away and drive dangerously. What’s needed is better prosecution and, perhaps, more stringent punishment. Not a knee-jerk and contradictory prohibition.

However, it’s when you come to the adverse economic consequences of its order that I seriously wonder whether the Supreme Court is aware of them or just doesn’t care. Thousands of hotels, restaurants and pubs have to shut down. All 10 hotels in Delhi’s Aerocity, many with major international chains as investors, feel let down and cheated. I doubt if they’ll expand business in India hereafter.

Amitabh Kant has tweeted a million jobs could be lost. That’s a million people whose livelihood has been destroyed and futures put at risk. An industry estimated at over 1.5 lakh crore, growing at 6, 9 and 11 % in recent years, has been seriously set back. The loss of revenue to the exchequer could be a thousand crore a day!

For Mr. Modi this is particularly dismal. He’s repeatedly spoken of tourism as a growth industry. It attracts foreign investment, creates jobs and fuels growth. But tourists like to tipple. If Goa and Kerala hotels and bars cannot offer a drink there are loads of places they can choose instead. Our Supreme Court has given them good reason to do so.

Aryama Sundaram has called the Supreme Court order authoritarian. He even hints its dictatorship. It’s certainly unfortunate and wrong and needs to be reconsidered and revoked. If the judges don’t do that many could end up agreeing with Mr. Sundaram.

The views expressed are personal