The Supreme Court liquor ban may be a case of judicial overreach
Article 47 of Indian constitution says that the state shall endeavour to bring about prohibition of consumption of intoxicating drinks, except for medicinal purposes . It may be noted that this ‘directive principle’ is talking about total prohibition and not just prohibition on national highways. Moreover the words used are ‘shall endeavour’; the same words that have been used in Article 44 about the Uniform Civil Code (UCC).
How many states have implemented prohibition? Why did the BJP in 2014 not promise to implement the Gujrat model of prohibition across the country? Why is the media opposing the Supreme Court’s directive on limited prohibition that is applicable only on national and state highways. The court was right in saying that India, which is on the cusp of becoming an economic superpower, should not become the accident capital of the world. It is crystal clear that the media has double standards and its sympathies are with the powerful liquor lobby.
The apex court order of December 15, 2016 in K. Balu’s case came in for review as all states and the Centre are sympathetic to the cause of liquor vendors on highways. The court modified its order on March 31 to give some relief; and has now prohibited the sale of liquor within 220 metres instead of 500 metres of national and state highways in towns with a population less than 20,000. Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Meghalaya have been exempted.
In 2014, as many as 87,264 people died in accidents on national and state highways in some 2.37 lakh accidents injuring 2.59 lakh people. Accurate statistics of deaths due to liquor consumption, break up of marriages and even divorces including triple divorce are not available; and yet no one argues for prohibition with the same vehemence as for UCC. The court was right in at least taking the first step in the direction of implementing Article 47.
But there is some merit in the criticism of this historic order. The order will not be able to prevent drunken driving and the apex court did acknowledge that people may now start their journey after stocking up enough intoxicating drinks. In fact those driving long distances would not mind covering an additional distance of 500 metres to purchase liquor. Some states are even denotifying state highways as municipal roads
All directive principles of state policy are ‘policy issues’ which should be left to the government. It is not the job of the court to force the government to implement them. In fact at times such orders are against the spirit of ‘separation of powers’. This was certainly not a fit case to invoke the extraordinary powers of the court to do ‘complete justice’ under Article 142.
But then, governmental intent (at least on paper) in this matter is clear from the 2004 directive of the National Road Safety Council established under the Motor Vehicle Act,1988 in which states have been repeatedly advised ‘not only to remove liquor shops from the national highways but also to immediately stop issuance of fresh licences to liquor vendors along with national highways’.
The media has also criticised this order for the loss of jobs and revenue; and also on the ground that red wine is good for health. Why did the media not raise these issues about the recent meat ban in U.P? Is there no protein in buffalo meat for the poor?
A presidential reference is now going to be made to the Supreme Court to reduce the impact of the judgment. If that too fails, there is strong possibility of a parliamentary intervention to overturn the order, hopefully through an ordinary bill and not a finance bill.
The author is Vice-Chancellor NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad. The views expressed are personal.