The Centre is unlikely to appeal the Supreme Court (SC) order to close liquor shops located 500 metres from highways, since it feels there is no basis to make such a case. It has also taken a dim view of states denotifying stretches of roads as the state highways.
According to top officers of the government, a careful reading of the SC judgment shows it has repeatedly upheld the Centre’s stated position. The Bench, headed by the former chief justice
T N Thakur, had, in fact, midway through the case, given a chance to the Centre to come up with an updated model policy on sale of liquor along the national and state highways to replace the existing one. In response, however, the government had furnished none. Instead, the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways had informed the court in an affidavit that framing such a model policy did not fall under its ambit. The court, in its order, has referred approvingly to the affidavit submitted in 2015, stating “(the ministry’s) considered view and position based on the statistics of road accidents that liquor shops should not be situated along the national highways. We see no rational basis to exclude stretches of the national highways and state highways, which fall within the limits of a municipal or local authority from the ambit of the suggested prohibition”.
Given such an endorsement by the court, the government is thus, caught in a fix. “There is no miscarriage of justice here,” one of them, asked to figure out a response, told Business Standard. Unlike in the case of the 2G telecom or coal scam, the court has not drilled holes in the Centre’s position to show how its policy and practice had differed. “The court must accept the policy of the Union government for more than one reason. First and foremost, it is a trite law that in matters of policy, in this case a policy on safety, the court will defer to and accept a considered view formed by an expert body,” in this case the government. Making a Presidential reference is thus, impossible in the circumstance. If the case is weak, the outgoing President Pranab Mukherjee will, in all likelihood, ask the government to withdraw the plea.
About the move by states to remove the status of roads abutting major hotels and restaurants as state highways, another official said this is the domain of the governments concerned. But, in an indication of the central government’s position, the same has not been considered for stretches of the national highway to take advantage of a perceived gap in the order. The government’s law officers feel there is no gap available. They said fresh nomenclature could create more problems as the apex court has decided that the original plea for prohibition on the national highways needed to be extended to state highways too. “There can be no valid distinction between a national highway and state highway insofar as the location of liquor shops abutting the highway is concerned,” Thakur’s three-judge Bench had argued against the Punjab government’s arguments in the same case to limit the ban to only the national highways. So, a denotified road is unlikely to escape censure. Reclassifying the roads will remove them from the central and state government schemes under which they are to be maintained, which will defeat the purpose of the mega road construction programme, which has been revived by this government.
So, despite the spectre of massive job loss and economic dislocation, there is no easy way out of the impasse. However, the government is unlikely to contest if any of the affected parties like the hotel and restaurant association of India approach the courts for diluting the restrictions. But given the blanket endorsement of liquor-free highways, it has offered the courts with, this could be a problem.