Stopping just short of initiating contempt proceedings over the failure to remove highway liquor shops that contribute to road accidents, the Punjab and Haryana high court has given the two states a month for survey and report.
The excise officials of both states are to do this survey with the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI). Displeased with non-compliance of the rules and high court directions, the division bench comprising chief justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul and justice Augustine George Masih remarked on Tuesday: "There has to be some will. Will is lacking with the governments…you don't have the fear of law in violating rules."
The CJ asked the Punjab counsel: "How much time do you need? We are totally dissatisfied with your (government's) functioning. If you want contempt to be issued, it's your choice."
Hearing the petition of non-government organisation (NGO) Arrive Safe Society, the court also took a serious note of the Haryana government's showing its "smartness" to frame the excise policy for two years (2013-14 and 2014-15) at one go this March, "despite knowing that the case was already pending in court and the notice regarding stay had been issued".
The NHAI's counsel submitted: "The state governments' action is not satisfactory. We have dug trenches between liquor shops and highways at many places but the owners fill them up again."
The government counsel sought some time to initiate action and submitted that of the 186 liquor shops that the NHAI had pointed out, 68 had been relocated to sites that had no direct access from highways; and 43 of 144 other liquor shops in six districts had also been relocated.
DP Reddy, financial commissioner in the department of excise and taxation, submitted that in the proposed excise policy for the year 2014-15, a provision would be included to disallow the sale of liquor along the national highways from April 1, 2014.
If the liquor shops were to be closed at this stage, the proportionate license fee of about `215 crore would have to be refunded to the licensees, which was too much to bear for the state government, submitted Reddy.
Hardeep Kumar, principal secretary in the excise and taxation department, submitted that of 3,499 liquor shops in the state, 651 were near national or state highways and if these were relocated, the state would lost Rs. 945 crore licence fee and excise duty for January 2014 to March 2015 (license period).
However, the state government undertook to implement the restrictions of accessibility and visibility on the location of liquor shops at the time of formulating the excise policy for the period starting April 2015.