Liquor Ban on Highways: States Divided Along Political Lines?

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The states that have and have not sought a re-look at the Supreme Court's verdict banning liquor vends within 500 metres of national and state highways, seem to be divided on political lines, even as the Centre has "unequivocally" supported the order.

The apex court order passed last week also recorded that eight states, which are ruled by parties other than the BJP, had rushed to it for modification of the 15 December 2016 verdict.

The states that had approached the apex court for modification of its verdict were Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Sikkim, Telangana, Meghalaya and Andhra Pradesh. Besides these, the union territory of Puducherry has also sought changes in the judgement.

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Later, Andhra Pradesh withdrew its application, saying the state government had accepted last year's judgement.

Eighteen states have preferred not to file any application against the verdict.

While the Centrem through senior advocates Ajit Kumar Sinha and AK Panda, had "unequivocally asserted that the union government stands by the judgment rendered by this court on 15 December 2016", Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi, who appeared for the Tamil Nadu government, had assailed the directives for doing away with vends in a 500-metre radius from national and state highways.

"The judgment rendered by this court has transgressed the limitations on the constitutional power conferred by Article 142," Rohatgi had said.

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Various contentions for modification of the order raised by the Attorney General were not agreed to by a bench headed by Chief Justice JS Khehar, which said that “the error, in the submission of the Attorney General, lies in comparing national and state highways”.

"Moreover, it is urged that even if the prohibition were to apply to both national and state highways, an exemption ought to be provided for the location of liquor shops in municipal areas through which the state highways traverse.”

"Alternately, it was urged that a smaller prohibition in terms of distance would be appropriate in relation to state highways. The Attorney General has confined his submission to the state highways only," the bench noted.

While expressing disagreement with the state governments' contentions, the bench said, "The state excise rules contain enabling provisions. They provide for a discretion for the grant of liquor licences. No individual has a vested right to obtain a licence".

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"There is no fundamental right to carry on business in liquor since as a matter of constitutional doctrine, Article 19(1)(g) does not extend to trade in liquor..." the bench, also comprising Justices DY Chandrachud and LN Rao, said.

The apex court on 31 March had partially modified its 15 December 2016 verdict by exempting hill states of Sikkim, Meghalaya and Himachal Pradesh, and areas having a population of up to 20,000.

During the arguments before the apex court, the Madhya Pradesh government had filed an affidavit saying the verdict "has been accepted by the state government, following a resolution by the council of ministers on 16 January 2017".

Similarly, Delhi Tourism Development Corporation (DTDC) had told the court that out of 547 liquor vends, 14 were in breach of the 500-metre norm and a committee was constituted to shift these vends.