TT, New Delhi, March 31: Thousands of highway bars in the country face closure from tomorrow with the Supreme Court clarifying that a ban it imposed last year was not confined to liquor takeaway outlets alone.
The clarification means that bars, pubs, restaurants and hotels within 500 metres of national and state highways in most parts of the country, except Sikkim and Meghalaya and low-population civic areas, are barred from selling liquor from April 1.
The court did tweak its original December 15 order but the ban largely stays intact and is expected to have significant consequences for states like Bengal that depend on alcohol sales for revenue. The ban's objective is to check highway accidents linked to drink-driving.
The Bengal government has found an escape route for the bars of some star hotels along the EM Bypass by dropping the relevant stretches of the road from the list of state highways.
However, a perceived attempt to find an escape hatch for off-shops (takeaway outlets) by converting them into on-shops (where liquor can be consumed but food is not served as in regular bars) appears to have collapsed following the Supreme Court clarification today.
Several lawyers had contended that the court's December order was limited to off-shops and would not apply to bars or restaurants that serve liquor.
But the bench of Chief Justice J.S. Khehar and Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and L. Nageswara Rao said in the written order uploaded tonight: "Finally, we clarify that we are not inclined to issue a direction in terms as sought by Shri Aryama Sundaram, learned senior counsel, and 22 other counsel that the judgment of this court should be clarified so as to apply only to shops involving sale of liquor.
"Since the object of the direction is to prevent drunken driving, no such relaxation can be made which would defeat the object which is sought to be achieved. Consequently, the directions issued by this court cannot be read down, as suggested. The directions shall be read, as they stand."
The court was referring to the lawyers' plea that the ban apply only to liquor vends and not bars and restaurants and hotels serving alcohol.
Liquor manufacturer Pincon Spirits had told stock exchanges on Monday that the Bengal government had decided to issue on-shop licences to off-shop vendors. Pincon officials today said the company would have to look into the details of the order.
The court order uploaded tonight does not leave any room for confusion.
The Supreme Court slightly modified its the previous order to say that in municipal areas with populations of 20,000 or less, the ban would apply only to liquor vends and bars located within 220 metres of highways.
For civic areas with populations higher than 20,000, and stretches of highways that do not fall within municipal areas, the limit remains 500 metres.
Two further modifications were announced.
One, no restrictions would apply to liquor vends or bars in the hill states of Sikkim and Meghalaya on the basis of their proximity to highways.
These two states' governments had argued that such restrictions would close down 90 per cent of the liquor outlets there because of the peculiarities of the local topography. They had also contended that their liquor outlets mainly served the local population and not motorists.
Two, the court said the ban would come into force from October 1 this year in the case of outlets whose excise licences are valid till September 31. The earlier order had imposed a blanket ban from April 1.
However, licences cannot be renewed any more. Since liquor licences in most states expire on March 31, the ban becomes effective from tomorrow across most of India.
The spirits industry and state governments, led by attorney-general Mukul Rohatgi, had sought a lifting of the ban altogether. They had argued that depriving hotels and restaurant-cum-bars of the right to serve liquor would force them to close besides causing huge losses to the exchequer.
But the court did not relent.
The order had been passed on the recommendation of a three-member Supreme Court-appointed committee on road safety. Headed by a former apex court judge, Justice K.S. Radhakrishnan, the committee had recommended a slew of directions to the Centre, states and Union territories.
They included the ban on the sale of liquor on or near state and national highways, removal of hoardings and billboards that distract drivers on highways, and the removal of pavement encroachments across the country for the safety of road users.
According to a report by the road transport and highways ministry, almost five lakh accidents occurred in India in 2015, killing 146,000 people and leaving thrice the number injured. This comes to around 1,374 accidents and 400 deaths every day.
The World Report on Road Traffic Injury Prevention of the World Health Organisation says that road accidents would become one of the biggest killers in India by 2020.