By Sandeep Sahu
500 meters! That’s how far the Supreme Court has drawn the lakshman rekha for liquor shops by the side of state and national highways. The idea behind the directive is, of course, unexceptionable. After all, highway mishaps constitute a huge proportion of the lakhs of road accidents reported in the country every year. As per the eye-popping statistics thrown up by a report on ‘Road accidents in India, 2015’ released by the Union Ministry of Surface Transport a few months ago, road mishaps in the country crossed a staggering five lakh that year and left 1.46 lakh dead – 54% of them youths in the age group of 15-34 – and over five lakh injured. More worryingly, 62% of the accidents were attributed to over-speeding, often caused by drunken driving. The need to curb the menace of drunken driving, thus, can hardly be overstated.
But the big question is: will the 500-meter decision (assuming that it will be carried out in letter and spirit by all states and union territories) really deter tipplers from drunken driving in significant numbers to bring down the rate of accidents on highways and, with it, highway casualties? Unlikely, I would say. It is not as if drivers feel a sudden urge to drink when they happen to see a liquor shop by the side of the road. I am afraid pushing liquor shops 500 meters beyond the highway would not be enough deterrence for those who must drink while driving. After all, how far is 500 meters for those, truck drivers in particular, who drive hundreds of kilometers at a stretch on every trip on highways? All it would do is to delay things for a few minutes and force them to take a small detour. As for those not willing to take even that small trouble, nothing stops them from stocking enough stuff for the road at their starting point. They can just park their vehicle by the side of the road – which, by the way, has not been banned by the apex court – have their fill and set off with ‘renewed vigour’ once again!
The Supreme Court directive could create another problem. The land where a liquor shop is to be located as per the new rules could well be agricultural land or belong to private individuals, posing a problem of acquisition or leasing. With almost all state governments – Bihar being an honourable exception – hell bent on opening more and more liquor shops in their desperate effort to ramp up their revenues, encroachment of land – government, private and commons – may well become the order of the day. Keen as they are to ensure proliferation of liquor shops, state governments are likely to close their eyes to such encroachment – unless it leads to a serious law and order problem.
This brings us to the crux of the issue. It is about time we realized that efforts to discourage drunken driving cannot go hand in hand with even more vigorous efforts to promote drinking. No matter how many impediments you put on the way, curbing drunken driving/alcoholism will always remain an impractical proposition as long as curbs are not placed on manufacture and sale of liquor – a la Nitish Kumar’s Bihar.
A case in point is smoking. Smoking in public places is banned in almost the whole of India. There is a complete ban on promoting cigarettes, bidis and other tobacco products through advertisements. Not a year goes by without the excise and other duties being enhanced on cigarettes in the annual budget in an apparent bid to discourage smoking. And yet, smoking continues unabated, killing and maiming thousands every year. That is because governments are unwilling to hit at the source of the smoking menace.
The same logic can be applied in case of liquor too. You cannot flood the country with liquor through your policies and administrative decisions and still expect people not to drown in it!