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The issue of the ban on sale of alcoholic beverages within 500m of a national or a state highway drew many more arguments at the court of Chief Justice of India (CJI) JS Khehar and Justices DY Chandrachud and L Nageswara Rao on March 30.

The Supreme Court bench reserved its judgement, because contrasting voices were coming in from different states. A general consensus seems to be building among different counsels that an overall sweeping order may not be a possibility in a country where situations are so vastly different for different states.

The CJI laid out the issues: First, was about shifting the shops out of 500m; second was about some states which are hilly and some areas where the habitation is on the sides of the highways.

Senior advocate Rajeev Dhawan, representing a group of liquor vendors, said: “It is the states’ prerogative to make excise laws and therefore your lordships’ judgment is unconstitutional. Every state has its own individuality (and) you cannot direct.”

Justice Chandrachud interjected, saying: “You are not (speaking) for state governments. You need not argue for state. You please argue only your case.”

At this, one of the applicants submitted that the bench hear cases statewise.

Senior advocate KK Venugopal, arguing for Tamil Nadu, pointed out that Gujarat was a dry state, but it still had a high number of accidents on its highways. So banning liquor shops was not the solution.

The counsel tried to point out that the order itself was unconstitutional. And if that was proven then there was no need to find a solution. To which Justice Chandrachud said: “Our order is regarding public health, as we are not granting licence. The Excise Act doesn’t matter here.”

The counsel argued that he is entitled under the Excise Act to hold a licence. “And if your lordship says that the licence cannot be reissued, then I ask myself ‘from where do I get a license’? Such a sweeping order is unacceptable, by administrative or by any other authority.” His line of argument was how could it be related that closing liquor shops would reduce or stop accidents?

Justice Rao reminded all petitioners that the directions were not contrary to law.

Dhawan pointed out that every state had its own peculiarity. “How can a single, sweeping order prohibit all shops on the state highways? Your lordships are constrained by time and place as far as state highways are concerned.”

Senior advocate Kapil Sibal, the counsel for dealers of Maharashtra said that the court had not been apprised of (the situation in) all states. “We have a right to place the documents.”

Another view arose, when senior advocate PP Rao, representing another applicant, said that no driver should be served liquor. He also said that some more time should be given to the shops to shift, and the government should provide them alternative venues.

Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi said: “Your lordship may give some exemption. At least regarding state highways, it should not be 500m. That will take me out of habitation and into some godforsaken place.”

The CJI said: “We are open to suggestions. We are thinking. But you have come at the last moment. You had time from December 15, 2016.”

Sibal pointed out that alcohol is outside the GST because it affects every municipality. “I have not seen your lordships going back on your judgements.”

To which CJI said: “No. It’s not like that we can go back on our judgment.”

The order on issue has been reserved.

—By India Legal Bureau

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