“The bar and the bench of the Mahe sub-court are literally attached to another bar,” advocate Manoj V George told the Supreme Court on December 7. “The court has five liquor vends around it.”

Many eyebrows were raised when George used this carefully-worded statement to bring the concerns of the residents of Mahe – an enclave of the Union Territory of Puducherry that is located in Kerala – to the apex court’s attention.

On Thursday, a three-member bench of the apex court, headed by Chief Justice TS Thakur, ordered a ban on liquor vends along national and state highways across the country from April 1. The court also imposed a restriction on the establishment of liquor vends within 500 metres of all highways, and banned signages advertising their presence along highways too.

At the December 7 hearing, the court had expressed its concern at the high number of road accident fatalities – 1.5 lakh – every year in India, indicating that it was in favour of a ban on liquor vends along highways. This was also one of the top recommendations by the Supreme Court Committee on Road Safety, headed by Justice KS Radhakrishnan, in its report published last year.

Friends of Mahe

Advocate George represented Mayyazhikkoottam, or the Friends Group of Mahe, a group of expatriates from Mahe living in Dubai, who have been fighting to reduce the number of liquor vends in their tiny home district.

The apex court heard their plea along with a Public Interest Litigation filed by ArriveSafe, a Chandigarh-based Non-Governmental Organisation that works in the area of road safety, which argued for a ban on liquor vends along all highways in the country.

(Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen).

Mahe, also known as Mayyazhi in Malayalam, is situated along the coast of Kerala. Covering an area of nine sq km, it is one of the smallest districts in the country. It is also a tipplers’ paradise thanks to the easy availability of Indian Made Foreign Liquor here. The district has 64 liquor vends, with 45 of them just along a single one km stretch of NH66 that cuts the enclave vertically, connecting it to Kerala from its northern and southern ends. On this stretch, there is one liquor vend every 15 metres.

Booze economy

The Supreme Court order is likely to hit liquor vend owners in Mahe hard, though several residents are likely to welcome it.

The majority of Mahe’s liquor customers arrive every morning in droves by bus and train from neighbouring Kerala, where a ban on the sale of liquor in non-five star hotels was announced in August 2014 and upheld by the Supreme Court in 2015.

The local economy depends heavily on liquor tourism. Easy availability and affordable rates are the major attractions. One can buy a full bottle (750ml) of the cheapest variety of rum for just Rs 62 in Mahe, which is an unimaginable proposition in Kerala, where the same bottle would cost Rs 350.

T Ashok Kumar, bar owner and counsel for the Mahe Liquor Merchants Association who represented them in the Supreme Court, said that the court order would deprive more than 1,000 families of their livelihood.

“Liquor tourism provides employment for more than 1,000 people both directly and indirectly,” he said. “[The ban] will deprive employees of more than 40 liquor outlets. It will affect those who get jobs indirectly, including headload workers, peanut vendors, and autorickshaw drivers. It will hit the business in hotels and restaurants too.”

It remains to be seen how liquor merchants will work around the court order as it is difficult to find an alternative location in the thickly-populated residential areas of Mahe.

(Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen).

What next?

Jinos Basheer, president of Mayyazhikkoottam, said that his organisation does not aim to make Mahe a liquor-free district. He said the idea was to restrict the vends to about six or seven in proportion to the district’s population.

“42,000 people in Mahe don’t need 64 bars,” he said. “They cannot drink the liquor on sale at all the outlets in Mahe. The presence of too many liquor outlets makes youngsters addicted to liquor.”

Mahe’s lone MLA, Dr V Ramachandran, said that the enclave’s residents lost their peace of mind many years ago. “Tipplers show scant regard for Mahe residents,” he said. “They drink out in the open and create scenes. Many die in road accidents. They even create law and order problems.”

Every day, the Mahe Police receives several complaints regarding incidents involving those who have imbibed too much alcohol.

“We get calls almost every hour about people lying unconscious on the walkways, or quarrels between drunkards,” said Kamalahassan, head constable at Mahe Police Station. “It is a huge headache for us. Besides we get at least one drunken death case every month. Most of them die of dehydration or in accidents.”

However, Ramachandran said that he hoped the court order would not result in the closure of all bars. “I think all the bars will be moved away from the highways once the Supreme Court verdict comes into force,” he said. “It will not result in loss of employment, but I am not sure about its economic impact.”

He is also concerned about the quality of liquor sold in Mahe. “There is no mechanism to check the quality of liquor in Puducherry,” said Ramachandran. “The government should enact stringent abkari [excise] laws to ensure liquor quality.”

Advocate George said the case has helped him bring another major issue before the Supreme Court.

“There are guidelines against setting up liquor outlets in the vicinity of educational and religious institutions,” said George. “But there are no specifications on the distance to be kept from the court premises. I am happy to raise the issue in the highest court of the country.”