Three days after a Supreme Court order compelling all liquor shops and bars within 500 metres of national and state highways to stop selling alcohol in an attempt to curb drunk driving, confusion reigned in the hospitality industry across Indian towns and cities on Monday.

Arterial highways run through almost every major Indian city. The ban on all watering holes along them could throw nearly a million people out of work, government officials estimated. Collectively, Indian state governments also stand to lose more than Rs 200,000 crore in revenue. Unsurprisingly, states governments and restaurant associations are now scrambling to seek the “denotification” of highways within cities so that they can be classified as urban roads instead.

This is itself, however, has proved to be incredibly complicated. Not only is there confusion amongst various government agencies about whether it is really possible to denotifiy highways within cities, there is also confusion on whether these city highways are technically highways at all.

Typically, national highways that fall within the borders of a city are maintained by either the Public Works Department or the local municipal corporation. The status of these highways had been the subject of some confusion amongst civic agencies, the National Highways Authority of India and the Ministry of Transport and Road Development. The Ministry eventually clarified that these roads within cities would be considered as national highways, and that bar and liquor shop owners around them would be issued notices to adhere to the Supreme Court order.

On the ground, however, this clarification has resulted in chaos. In Delhi, for instance, several liquor shops and bars along Ring Road – certain stretches of which come under NH-48 and NH-44 – did not receive any notice from the government about the liquor ban. They have been carrying on their business in the belief that Ring Road is not a highway.

In Mumbai, meanwhile, bar owners have received orders to stop selling liquor even though the Public Works Department has classified the city’s Western Express Highway as an “expressway”. In Chennai, liquor shops along the main Anna Salai thoroughfare have shut down even though the road does not feature on Tamil Nadu’s list of state highways.

Here is a snapshot of some of the confusion triggered by the highway liquor ban across the country.

Delhi: Ring Road not a national highway?

Around 2 pm on Monday, there were hardly any customers outside the two wine and beer shops in South Delhi’s Bhikaji Cama Place complex. “The crowd usually comes in the evening and the demand is high for chilled beer in this weather,” said the shop manager, who did not wish to be identified. He claimed that the ban on liquor outlets in the vicinity of national highways has not affected his business. “This is Ring Road and not any national highway,” he said.

However, the Ring Road stretch in which Bhikaji Cama Place complex is located is a section of National Highway 48, which is a part of the Golden Quadrilateral connecting Delhi with Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata.

Around 100 metres away in the same complex, another wine and beer shop owner went about his usual work and did not have any idea about the stretch being a national highway. Around 4 km away, all popular lounges and bars at the South Extension market were open on Monday. The one that visited was serving liquor and the manager claimed he did not even know about the highway liquor ban.

A liquor shop near Bhikaji Cama Place Complex in Delhi. Photo credit: Abhishek Dey

According to a senior official at the Delhi state Public Works Department, which is entrusted with the responsibility of maintaining Ring Road, the confusion about the status of highways within the city hit the civic agencies and the excise department in December 2016, when they were chalking out an implementation plan for a proposed highway liquor ban. “The data on national highways within Delhi was checked and discrepancies were found in the data produced by the PWD, National Highways Authority of India and the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways,” he said. “So the ministry later issued a notification to clarify which roads in the city are to be considered national highways for this purpose and which ones should be exempted.”

Mumbai: ‘Expressway, not highway’

On the afternoon of March 31, Santosh Shetty paid Rs 6 lakh to the Maharashtra excise department, as a license renewal fee to run Satish Restaurant and Bar in Andheri East, Mumbai. Hours later, he found himself feeling looted and helpless when he heard the news of the Supreme Court’s highway liquor ban.

“We renewed our license because the excise officer told us to do so – we were told that the ban, if it got enforced, would be restricted to liquor shops and not bars, restaurants and permit rooms,” said Shetty, whose restaurant is near Mumbai’s Western Express Highway, on the outer edges of the 500-metre zone where liquor sale is now banned. “Now this sudden ban is completely unethical.”

Shetty’s indignation has been compounded by the response to a Right to Information query by a fellow bar owner, which has been doing the rounds of the industry’s Whatsapp groups. The RTI reply, given by the state’s Public Works Department on March 7, clearly states that the 25-km Western Express Highway within Mumbai city is neither a national nor a state highway, but is instead known as “Expressway No 6”. The national highway, according to the RTI reply, begins after Dahisar check naka. “If this is not a highway, then why should our bars be shut?” said Shetty, whose bar has done no business for three days.

Suresh Shetty outside his restobar near Mumbai's Western Express Highway. Photo credit: Aarefa Johari

What Shetty doesn’t know, however, is that soon after the RTI response arrived, a team from the Indian Hotels and Restaurants Association visited PWD officials in the state to ask for reprieve from the impending highway liquor ban. “But the officials told us that an expressway is actually superior to a highway,” said Adarsh Shetty. “Now we don’t know what to make of this because the Supreme Court order only mentions national and state highways.”

Chennai: What kind of road is Anna Salai?

From April 1 onwards, both the Madras Gymkhana Club and the 144-year-old Cosmopolitan Club have stopped serving liquor in compliance with the Supreme Court ruling. Both the elite, colonial-era clubs are located off the 12-km-long Anna Salai, formerly known as Mount Road, which runs through central Chennai. Several state-run liquor shops that dot this arterial road were also shut over the weekend, even as crowds could still be seen thronging shops in the interior road.

“I am leaving tonight for my village in Madurai district and get back to farming,” said K Munees, a former employee at one such liquor shop on Anna Salai. “My family is happy that I will not be working in a liquor shop anymore, even though I earned Rs 12,000 a month.”

K Munees is planning to return to agriculture. Photo credit: Vinita Govindarajan.

There is a great deal of confusion among liquor sellers about whether or not Anna Salai is a state highway. While it does not feature on the list of state highways on the government’s website, it is managed by the Tamil Nadu Highways Department – perhaps leading to the impression that it is a state highway. Consequently, several liquor shops closed down their operations immediately after media reports were published about the Supreme Court ban.

“We hope that the state government will file for an amendment in the law, exempting clubs,” said C Venugopal, secretary of the century-old Madras Gymkhana Club.

Mahe: The uncertain fate of a ‘tipplers’ paradise’

Many expect the Supreme Court’s highway liquor ban to change the face of Mahe forever. Up till March 31, this enclave of the Union Territory of Puducherry, located in Kerala, had 64 busy liquor outlets in just a 9 sq km area. The apex court verdict has reduced the number to 30, and NH-66 that connects Mahe to Kerala wears a deserted look.

But it seems that the volume of liquor sale hasn’t gone down. The 30 liquor outlets that lie away from the highways have been doing brisk business for the past three days. Serpentine queues can be seen in front of the outlets from morning till late night. There is no decrease in the number of customers who arrive in large numbers by bus and train from neighbouring Kerala either.

Liquor shops and bars in Mahe have been shut for three days. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen.

Easy availability of Indian-made foreign liquor and affordable rates have given Mahe the reputation of being a “tipplers’ paradise”. The majority of customers come from Kerala, where such liquor has become a precious commodity after the closure of 1,956 liquor outlets following a Supreme Court order in 2015.

T Ashok Kumar, bar owner and counsel for the Mahe Liquor Merchants Association, hopes the central government will find ways to bypass the latest Supreme Court ruling. “Liquor outlets will reopen soon. It is a matter of a couple of weeks,” he said. “Everything will be normal in this district by April 14.

Meanwhile, there were reports that liquor merchants are trying to work around the court order and find alternative locations away from national highways. However, Mahe’s lone MLA, V Ramachandran, said that the public will prevent bar owners’ plans. “They will not allow relocation of the closed liquor outlets. Mahe is a thickly populated area. We don’t have space for liquor outlets anymore,” he said.

Mahe has a population of just 42,000 and Ramachandran believes the district does not need more than 10 liquor outlets. “Earlier, tipplers showed scant regard for Mahe residents,” said Ramachandran. “They used to drink out in the open and created scenes. Many die in road accidents. It was a huge law and order problem.”

Goa: ‘Waiting for government to do something’

With Goa’s National Highway 17 cutting through the bustling suburb of Porvorim in North Goa, a string of restaurants, pubs, hotels and even a mall has been affected by the alcohol ban.

Maracas, a drinks and tapas restaurant on NH-17, has seen its business plunge 50% since April 1, says manager Rohit Sharma. The establishment is currently offering Red Bull, mocktails and juices, but it had just 30 to 40 customers on Sunday night – down from their usual 130. “The bar is a very important part of this restaurant. Now, because there are other options, some customers who want a drink move elsewhere. Regulars who like the food stay with us,” said Sharma. Located in an old Indo-Portuguese house and garden that is owned property, relocating is difficult for Maracas. Moreover, the restaurant was renovated just two months ago. “We are waiting for the government and other bar associations to do something, but right now nothing seems to be happening,” said the manager.

O’Coqueiro, a landmark restaurant and party venue, had two party bookings cancelled in the past two days. “Unless there is a respite more bookings could be cancelled,” said manager Shoven Biswas. “We knew we would be checked on April 1 itself. But we had cleared out all our stocks from the restaurant, so excise officials found nothing.”

A deserted O'Coqueiro bar in Goa. Photo credit: Pamela D'Mello.

Further north, just metres off NH-17, the happening Downtown has been shut. Barcode, its sister concern, now has the first part of its name blanked out, and it has closed its bar. Celebrity chef Sanjeev Kapoor’s franchise restaurant Yellow Chilli has also closed its bar, and business has been slow for the past two days.

In the town of Margao, where the highway loops through a part of the heart of town, the iconic 65-year-old Longuinhos Bar and Restaurant has seen business slump by 75 % in the past two days. “It’s hot, people want their beers, feni and urrak otherwise they move elsewhere, because there are so many options,” says owner Ilio Countinho.

Written by Aarefa Johari in Mumbai with reports from Abhishek Dey in Delhi, Vinita Govindarajan in Chennai, TA Ameerudheen in Mahe, and Pamela D’Mello in Goa.