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Contravening liquor ban

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  30 April 2017 12:00 AM GMT

It is amusing to see minister Parimal Suklabaidya tying himself up into knots over the existence of State Highways in Assam. As PWD minister, he is on record stating in this year’s Assembly budget season that Assam has 53 State highways; but in his capacity as Excise minister, he recently told mediapersons that there are no notified State highways in Assam at all. So which avatar of the minister should we believe, the one in charge of PWD department or the one in charge of the Excise department? Suklabaidya’s is an extreme case, compelled to take contradictory positions due to the two portfolios he is holding. And the reason is the Supreme Court’s categorical order banning liquor sale along highways. For states dependent on excise revenue, this has come as a sledgehammer blow. When the Assam government is planning to go all out in promoting ‘heritage’ local brews, any dent in its overall excise inflows is sure to be viewed as calamitous. The suspicion grows that Dispur will soon denotify State highways, to eble liquor vends to reopen. Assam, however, is not alone. The Maharashtra government has denotified two express highways passing along Mumbai to get around the Supreme Court’s liquor ban, and is said to be planning to change their mes as well. Similarly in Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and some other states, hundreds of kilometres of tiol and state highways have been turned into district or local roads. The Madras High Court recently stayed the Tamil du government’s move to relocate or reopen more than 3,300 closed liquor outlets by bringing specific stretches of tiol and state highways under urban local bodies. The West Bengal government has declared around 275 km of state highways passing through various municipalities as ‘arterial roads’; the Uttarakhand government has taken a similar decision by re-categorising state highways located in the areas of local civic bodies as ‘district roads’, on the ground that highway specifications are coming in the way of their maintence and expansion! The governments of Rajasthan and Punjab have denotified bypassed stretches of state highways and converted these into city roads.
In Goa, the Manohar Parrikar government had to reject demands by opposition AAP that the state’s tourism industry should be bailed out by denotifying highways to allow liquor sales. The Kerala Excise minister has lamented in the Assembly that the flow of spurious liquor and banned rcotics from neighbouring states have increased after the SC order. Meanwhile, the Union Road Transport and Highways Ministry has reportedly received requests from several states to convert tiol Highways to district roads, at a time when the Centre is aiming to double the NH network to 2 lakh kms. There are already loud murmurs against the SC ban on liquor sale along highways — that it should rather have ensured stringent patrolling on highways and regular check points to prevent drunken driving. Others are contending that once highways are converted into local roads, cash strapped local bodies (some of which are not elected for years on end) will not be able to maintain the roads properly, thereby compromising road safety. There are counter-arguments that the Supreme Court order did not come out of a vacuum, because the Constitution itself contains a provision like Article 47 which calls upon states to bring about prohibition. Agreed that habitual drinkers will not be deterred by distance restrictions like 500 metres from highways, but neither should alcohol be made easily available alongside highways, when the country has the highest number of road accident deaths in the world. If there can be restrictions on liquor outlets near religious and educatiol institutions, surely there can be some restrictions alongside highways in the interest of public safety, it is being argued by activist groups. Considering how unregulated long stretches of tiol and state highways are in Assam, with scant regard for traffic rules and little will or wherewithal to check drunken driving — where most police check gates are bothered only with extorting bribes from overloaded vehicles — any evasive measures to circumvent the SC liquor ban will only be regressive.

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