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5 Apr 2017

Bengal uncorks bar balm - March 16 notification reclassifies 277km of state highways to get around Supreme Court ban

Pranesh Sarkar, TT, Calcutta, April 4: The Bengal government has reclassified 277.3km of state highways as "arterial roads" in a perceived attempt to help liquor shops and bars bypass a Supreme Court ban on alcohol sales within 500 metres of national and state highways.
Officials said these stretches, formerly part of 19 state highways, pass through urban areas and are flanked by many liquor outlets.
The Bengal government notification that declared the changed nomenclature is dated March 16, a fortnight before the Supreme Court issued the final order but long after it delivered the original judgment on December 15.
Several states are said to be planning such a modification but it is not clear whether it would pass legal muster. Such issues usually reach courtrooms when an aggrieved party takes the initiative but courts can also start proceedings on their own.
The Bengal notification said these stretches would now be maintained by the civic bodies as well as the PWD, which looks after state highways.
"This had to be done. If all the 2,000-odd liquor outlets near highways shut down at one go, the state could lose Rs 1,000 crore in revenues," an official said.
If the notification doesn't face a legal challenge, sources said, some 300 to 400 liquor shops and bars might escape the ban.
With the bar-cum-restaurants along the highways losing their liquor licences since the ban came into force on April 1, their business has plunged and some of the eateries have downsized staff.
"Now 15 to 20 per cent of these establishments can reopen," an official said. "For the next few days, the issue might become a point of controversy; so the liquor outlets may wait till the situation becomes normal," he added.
Although the industry welcomed the move, a government official said: "The notification is dated March 16, which precedes the ban by barely 15 days. Such matters usually don't go unnoticed in the courts."
Another official, however, said the reclassification was necessary for better maintenance of the roads by involving the civic bodies.
Some sources said the notification had been in circulation within the government for the past couple of weeks. A notification dated after the ban came into effect could be seen as a direct challenge to the court.

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