The Big Scroll: Contradictory orders

The Supreme Court on Tuesday took fresh positions in two high-profile cases that seemed to contradict the conclusions it had arrived at in the past, without any change in facts of the cases.

In December last year, the court banned the operation of liquor stores and bars within 500 metres of highways. The reasoning, quite justifiably, was that a huge number of liquor shops on national and state highways increased incidents of drunken driving and put the lives of people under severe risk. The court heard the matter for months and came to a conclusion that a ban on sale of alcohol on highways will significantly reduce road accidents.

Criticism did follow the judgment, with questions raised on whether better policing or ban on liquor was a more effective way to reduce accidental deaths due to drunken driving. There were also technical difficulties in implementing the ban as major cities too had highways running through them. Several states and union territories, including Chandigarh, made the argument that that such a ban inside municipal limits would affect the tourism sector. A more important concern, which was not openly expressed by the states, was the loss in revenue from taxes on sale of alcohol. In states like Tamil Nadu, a huge chunk of state revenue comes from sale of liquor, which is then used to service popular welfare schemes. This was the reason why even after declaring its intention to bring in prohibition in a phased manner, the Tamil Nadu government has managed to close only some 1,000 of the close to 9,000 alcohol shops in the state after announcing the policy in May 2016.

But the Supreme Court did not entertain pleas to exclude highways within municipal limits from the ban. The court, in December, said:

“We see no rational basis to exclude stretches of national highways and state highways which fall within the limits of a municipal or local authority (with a population exceeding a stipulated figure) from the ambit of the suggested prohibition. Where a national or state highway passes through a city, town or through the area of jurisdiction of a local authority, it would completely deny sense and logic to allow the sale of liquor along that stretch of the highway. Such an exclusion would defeat the policy since the presence of liquor shops along such stretches of a national or state highway would allow drivers to replenish their stock of alcohol, resulting in a situation which the policy seeks to avoid in the first place.”

However, on Tuesday, the Supreme Court allowed the state governments to denotify highways within municipal limits, thereby effectively nullifying the very intent of the December order. “We could have appreciated if (denotified) roads was in the nature of a highway where there is fast-moving traffic. All roads notified are in (the) city where there is no fast-moving traffic,” a bench headed by Chief Justice of India JS Khehar said, clearly overlooking the fact that cities see high incidence of road accidents. In 2015, Chennai and Bengaluru together recorded over 12,140 road accidents resulting in over 1,600 deaths. While denotification is a technical aspect on classification of roads, the court seems to have missed the point that it would do very little to change the physical nature of these roads, which usually turn out to be major roads within cities.

The change of stance was also apparent in another case on Tuesday.

The Supreme Court on Tuesday asked the Centre reconsider its position on notes that were demonetised in November and suggested that the government could give people with “genuine reasons” another chance to exchange the old notes. This suggestion has been made seven months after the deadline for exchanging notes ended in December, while all through the court maintained that it was not willing to interfere in policy decisions of the government.

Such orders send a signal that the original proceedings in the court may not have been thorough enough, given the significant change in positions. Though the idea of a review is indeed to consider new facts, in the above cases at least, the nature of facts have not changed as much as the court’s take on them.

The Big Story

  • TA Ameerudheen reports on the effects of the highways liquor ban on Kerala. 
  • Rohan Venkataramakrishnan explains why the Supreme Court did not think a ban on sale of liquor on highways was judicial overreach. 


  1. In the context of the Aadhar case, Subashish Banerjee writesin the Indian Express on why the idea of privacy should be understood keeping in mind the complexities of digital identities. 
  2. With Punjab as example, Manu Sebastian in Livelaw analyses the question of whether a legislation could overcome a judicial order. 
  3. In The Hindu, Pulapre Balakrishnan says the association of the state with the terror lynchings is a serious threat to freedom. 


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