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Liquor ban: SC dismisses challenge to denotification of Chandigarh highways


The Supreme Court on Tuesday dismissed a petition challenging the Chandigarh administration’s decision to denotify national and state highways and convert them to district roads to skirt a ban on the sale of liquor along highways.

The court’s decision could set a precedent for other states exploring means to get around the ban.

“Our order will be applicable as long as it remains a highway. With the denotification, it ceases to be a highway,” said Chief Justice J.S. Khehar.

The court noted that the ban was aimed at curbing drunken driving at high speeds outside the city. The denotification of highways that fall within the city, as in the case of Chandigarh, would have no bearing on the ban.

Justice Khehar also made it clear that the court was not inclined to entertain applications by non-state parties on the issue.

In one such instance, senior advocate Arvind Datar put forth the interests of licensed hotels, clubs and army canteens, to which the court responded by saying that the order should be restricted to liquor vends.

Various states expressed apprehension on the implementation of the ban order and the states of Kerala, Arunachal Pradesh and Andaman were allowed to file applications that will be heard by the court.

Only applications by certain state governments that sought clarity on the implementation of the ban order would be heard by the court. These included Kerala, Uttarakhand, Arunachal Pradesh and Andaman.

The court was responding to a challenge by the Arrive Safe Society of Chandigarh, a non-government organization (NGO) working on road safety on the re-classification of highways in Chandigarh as major district roads.

The reclassification by the Chandigarh administration, as in many other states, was done apparently to circumvent an earlier court order that banned liquor sale within 500m of state and national highways.

The NGO had approached the court in appeal against an order passed by the Punjab and Haryana high court on 16 March which refused to quash the notification. It contended that by denotifying state highways and renaming them major district roads, the Chandigarh administration had made a mockery of the Supreme Court order of 15 December 2016 setting out the distance criteria.

Calling the notification arbitrary, the plea noted that the notification does not state the reason or criteria for declassifying some roads from “state highways” to “major district roads” while letting some roads remain “state highways”.

This is not the first instance of a state exploring measures to reduce the impact of the apex court’s ban on sale of liquor along highways. This month, the Punjab government amended the state’s Excise Act, exempting restaurants, hotels and clubs from the purview of the ruling. In April, Rajasthan denotified certain sections of state highways passing through towns.

On 15 December, the court allowed liquor shops close to highways to operate till 31 March, but ruled against renewal of their licences. It also laid down that there would be no liquor sale in hotels and restaurants, or liquor outlets, within 500m of state and national highways.

This was modified in March this year where it was held that the ban would be within 220m of the highway in towns with population below 20,000.

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