The State of Tamil Nadu Represented by Its Secretary Home, Prohibition & Excise Dept & Ors v. K. Balu & Anr.

In this much popular judgement, the Supreme Court was called upon to answer whether ban on sale of liquor near National and State Highways was in violation of Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution.
CITATION2016 SCC OnLine SC 1487
COURTSupreme Court of India
JUDGES/CORAMJustice T.S. Thakur, Justice D.Y. Chandrachud and Justice L.N. Rao
DATE OF JUDGEMENT15.12.2016

Introduction

The issue addressed, in this case, is about the presence of liquor vends on national and state highways across the country. The backdrop to the case is provided by alarming statistics on the occurrence of road accidents. They have claimed human lives and caused debility and injury. Both on a personal scale (in terms of the injuries and loss of life) as well as in a social context, restitution in the form of mandatory awards of compensation can never undo the trauma of loss and the pain of suffering. The law can only imperfectly alleviate the consequences of road accidents. In terms of personal suffering caused to individuals and families as well as in terms of deprivation caused to society of its productive social capital, road accidents impose unacceptable costs. In analyzing the above issues, the Court ensured that the parameters for the exercise of its jurisdiction are confined to the familiar terrain of enforcing the constitutional right to lead a life of dignity and self-worth.

Facts

The facts of the case are as follows: The proceedings arose under Article 136 of the Constitution from the judgments of the High Courts at Madras and Punjab and Haryana respectively.

Madras High Court:

  • The Madras High Court was presented with a public interest litigation seeking the removal of retail outlets for liquor on national and state highways, contrary to the advisory of the Union government dated 01.12.2011.The High Court noted that in the state of Tamil Nadu liquor shops along the highways are being run by Tamil Nadu State Marketing Transport Corporation (TASMAC).
  • It was stated by the Managing Director of TASMAC, that 75 shops have been shifted and a new location for 335 shops had been identified. Six months’ time was sought for shifting the shops; the affidavit having been filed in March 2013.
  • The High Court by a judgment and order of its Division Bench dated 25.02.2013 granted time until 31.03.2013 for the relocation of existing liquor shops being run on national/state highways. This order of the High Court has been questioned by the State of Tamil Nadu and TASMAC.
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Punjab & Haryana High Court

  • The petition for special leave has been filed by the state government against a judgment and order of a Division Bench of the High Court dated 18.12.2014. The proceedings were instituted in public interest (in this case by the Arrive Safe Society of Chandigarh) seeking directions for the removal of liquor vends from highways.
  • The High Court directed the State of Haryana to ensure in its liquor policy that no liquor vend shall be located along the national highways/state highways and that liquor shops are not accessible or visible from those highways or from the service lanes running along such highways.
  • The High Court rejected the case of the state that the prohibition should be confined only to the national highways. In relation to the States of Punjab as well as Haryana the High Court has held that the prohibition would apply to state and national highways.
  • 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. Accidents take place both on national and state highways and the easy availability of liquor possess a grave danger to the safety and lives of those who use these highways.

Issues

The main issues in the case were:

  1. Whether or not liquor licenses should be granted on national and state highways at the cost of endangering human lives and safety.
  2. Whether or not the ban on sale of liquor near National and State Highways amount to the violation of Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution.
  3. Whether or not the law made by the parliament on an item mentioned in the Union List would also apply to a similar item in the State List if the matter pertains to public policy.

Summary of court decision and judgment

The Court held in respect of Issue 1 that the answer should be in negative. Though, excise duty is an important source of revenue to the states, a prohibition on the grant of liquor licences to liquor shops on the national and state highways would only regulate the grant of such licences in a manner that would ensure that the consumption of alcoholic liquor does not pose dangers to the lives and safety of the users of national and state highways. In respect of issue 2, there is no fundamental right under Article 19(1)(g) to trade in liquor. Liquor has been regarded as res extra commercium.

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The Hon’ble Apex Court directed the Centre and State Governments to restrict/ban the sale of liquor along state and national highways. The directions issued by the Court under Article 142 are:

  • All states and union territories shall forthwith cease and desist from granting licenses for the sale of liquor along national and state highways;
  • The prohibition contained in (i) above shall extend to and include stretches of such highways which fall within the limits of a municipal corporation, city, town or local authority;
  • The existing licenses which have already been renewed prior to the date of this order shall continue until the term of the license expires but no later than 01.04.2017;
  • All advertisements of the availability of liquor shall be prohibited and existing ones removed forthwith both on national and state highways;
  • No shop for the sale of liquor shall be (i) visible from a national or state highway; (ii) directly accessible from a national or state highway and (iii) situated within a distance of 500 meters of the outer edge of the national or state highway or of a service lane along the highway.
  • All States and Union territories are mandated to strictly enforce the above directions. The Chief Secretaries and Directors General of Police shall within one month chalk out a plan for enforcement in consultation with the state revenue and home departments. Responsibility shall be assigned inter alia to District Collectors and Superintendents of Police and other competent authorities. Compliance shall be strictly monitored by calling for fortnightly reports on action taken.

Analysis

The court is correct as 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. Accidents take place both on national and state highways and the easy availability of liquor possess a grave danger to the safety and lives of those who use these highways. Advisories issued by The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) requesting the removal of all liquor vends on national highways and a ban on the issuance of fresh licenses on the ground that “prevention is better than cure” must be applicable to state highways as well. Both the national highways and state highways share a common experience of an unacceptably high number of road accidents, the prevalence injuries and fatalities; drunk driving being one of the major causes.

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Court is correct in deciding that even though excise duty is an important source of revenue to the states, a prohibition on the grant of liquor licences to liquor shops on the national and state highways would only regulate the grant of such licences in a manner that would ensure that the consumption of alcoholic liquor does not pose dangers to the lives and safety of the users of national and state highways. It would defy common sense to prohibit liquor shops along national highways while permitting them on state highways. Drunken driving as a menace and as a cause of road accidents is a phenomenon common to both national and state highways.

The Union Ministry of Road Transport and Highways in its Transport Research Wing brought out a publication titled “Road Accidents in India – 2015”. The publication presented some stark figures to justify the court’s decision.

In regard to the figures of death or injury due to drunken driving there is a tendency to underestimate or under—report in order not to impede the right of victims and/ or their legal heirs to receive compensation.

Conclusion

There are some shortcomings in the judgment as it failed to include other inter-city roads and also that this decision is not very effective in preventing drunken driving as people can still buy liquor before the journey or from places other than Highways. A driver of a motor vehicle can acquire liquor even before the commencement of a journey or, during a journey at a place other than a national or state highway. The law on preventing drunken driving also requires proper enforcement. Thus is ordered to eliminate drunken driving completely, proper enforcements are required of all the directions given by the Supreme Court.