Punjab house passes law to bypass Supreme Court’s highway liquor ban
The Punjab assembly on Friday passed the Punjab Excise Amendment Bill, 2017 changing the definition of “sale of liquor”.Updated: Jun 24, 2017 09:22 IST
The Punjab assembly on Friday amended an existing excise law to change the definition of “liquor sale”, creating a loophole aimed at sidestepping a Supreme Court ban on watering holes within 500 metres of state and national highways.
The Chandigarh administration and the Rajasthan government had redesignated state highways as district roads to ensure that highway liquor shops in their jurisdictions are not affected by the court verdict passed in December last year.
The Punjab Excise Amendment Bill-2017 introduces two clauses – 18-a and 19-a – to differentiate between ‘sale’ and ‘supply’ of liquor. While the first clause defines sale of liquor as “transfer of consideration by a liquor vend for consumption by a purchaser at a place other than its premises”, clause 19-a defines supply of liquor as “provision of liquor for consideration at clubs, restaurants, hotels and other places on the basis of licences issued on the condition that it shall be consumed within their premises”.
In other words, catering establishments will be allowed to provide liquor to customers as long as it is consumed on their premises. The legislation then goes to add that licensed hotels, clubs and restaurants will be entitled to continue supplying liquor even if they are located on state and national highways – notwithstanding any judgment or decree passed by a court or tribunal in that regard.
Punjab health and parliamentary affairs minister Brahm Mohindra – who tabled the bill – said while the state government was aware that the apex court had ordered the ban to curb drink driving, such a step had the potential to cause largescale unemployment and financial losses. “Hotels, clubs and restaurants are part of the hospitality industry, and they generate thousands of jobs. Even their partial closure can create substantial unemployment. One can shift liquor vends, but not hotels and clubs. Their closure can also impact the state’s future excise revenue. This amendment has been brought in view of the serious implications the ban can have on state revenue and jobs,” he added.
Punjab advocate general Atul Nanda said it was well within the state’s rights to legislate on the issue. “It (liquor) is a state subject. States can enact laws, if they deem fit to do so, on a state issue,” he added.
Nanda also pointed at the unemployment likely to be caused by such a ban, and the fact that huge loans were availed for opening the hotels and bars. “The owners of such establishments were granted licences prior to this decision,” the advocate general said. “How can hotels opened on highways be relocated?”
The government was learnt to have sought Nanda’s legal opinion after hoteliers and the state’s bar lobby voiced their grievances before it. The attorney general then suggested amending the law to curb losses faced by the tourism industry.
Arrive Safe, one of the petitioners in the case, was not impressed. “The Punjab government’s decision is unfortunate. We are studying the bill, and will decide on our future course of action in a day or two,” said Harman Sidhu, head of the NGO, hinting that they will move court against the amendment soon.
Former additional solicitor general of India Mohan Jain termed the amendment as a violation of the Supreme Court verdict. “Punjab is making a mockery of the court order. It was passed for the whole country, not one state or two. If they (the Punjab government) were concerned about something, they should have moved the Supreme Court instead,” he said.