A clampdown on liquor shops seems entirely unconnected with worsening conditions of city roads. But thanks to a classic case of judicial overreach and a scramble for ways around that disruptive verdict, the first will lead to the second in India.

It began with a national government policy urging states to curb the mushrooming of liquor shops along highways. Too many bus and truck drivers were stopping for a drink and proceeding to kill themselves or others in accidents. India’s highways cut through the heart of towns, large and small, and often have restaurants and even giant malls situated right at their kerb. These establishments have little connection with highway liquor shops catering exclusively to drivers. Recognising this, the national government carved out an exception in its policy: “National Highway or State Highway shall not include such parts of the National Highway or State Highway as are situated within the limits of Municipal Corporation, City or Town Municipal Council or such other authority having a population of twenty thousand or more”.

Few states followed the Centre’s suggestion to eliminate bars sitting in isolated spots on highways. Too many bribes to be had from the vendors. Inevitably, a public interest litigation sought to enforce the policy, and wound its way to the Supreme Court. That is where things went seriously awry. The mis-step was authored by Justice Dhananjay Chandrachud, who is in line to become the most senior judge in India, and is on his better days one of the few sparks of hope for liberals among the current batch of Supreme Court justices.

It seemed like the bench hearing the liquor shop petition had two choices: enforce the Central government’s policy, or leave things as they were. Instead the verdict went far beyond the scope of what the petitioners sought. Chandrachud wrote:

“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. Once it is an accepted position that the presence of liquor vends along the highways poses a grave danger to road safety an exception cannot be carved out to permit the sale of liquor along a stretch of the highway which passes through the limits of a city, town or local authority. Such an exception would be wholly arbitrary and violative of Article 14.”

Just like that, the restaurant in the mall next to a highway could no longer sell alcohol. With a few taps of the keyboard, the Supreme Court had rendered thousands of legitimate bars and liquor stores illegal, and threatened the livelihoods of tens of thousands of workers. This might have been understandable had the problem of drunken driving on highways been critical, but there was little indication it had reached that level.

Road fatalities in India

In 2015, according to an excellent report by the Transport Research Wing of the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways that was quoted extensively in the Supreme Court’s judgement, there were 146,133 fatalities on Indian roads, of which 6,755 were caused by the driver being drunk or stoned. Sixty-three per cent of all fatal accidents took place on state and national highways, and reducing the number of drunk driving deaths proportionally, we get a figure of 4,255 deaths caused by drunk drivers on highways. That is a lot of deaths in absolute terms, but a very small percentage of total fatalities on Indian roads. To put in place such a sweeping prohibition in the hope of denting that figure was akin to chasing a fly with a hammer. What is really required is better policing of drunk driving on highways, along the lines of measures put in place within cities, but there is little a court can do in that regard.

Looking at the statistics in the report, one figure stands out glaringly. It appears on page 41, and concerns the ratio of fatalities to accidents in different nations. India has one of the highest rates of road fatalities per hundred thousand citizens, but one of the lowest rates of injury. Each year, 40 Indians in every 100,000 are injured in a road accident, and 11 die. Compare this with 348 injuries and five deaths for every 100,000 Canadians, and 513 injuries and 10 deaths in the United States. Your chances of dying if you are injured in an accident in North America are about one in 50, while in India, they are one in five. The yawning gap in the ratio of fatalities to injuries demonstrates the importance of quick expert medical attention. Good emergency services along highways could save tens of thousands of lives a year. Again, there is little a court can do to make this happen, so the judges took the easy route rather than the efficacious one.

Poorly maintained, dangerous roads

Following the verdict, states were faced with an unemployment crisis as well as lobbying by powerful trade associations. Their solution was to denotify highways within cities. Suddenly, the state highway next door was a mere municipal street. The denotification issue went back to the Supreme Court, which on July 11 dismissed the plea. And so we can for the foreseeable future enjoy a glass of beer in the mall next to what used to be a highway. The owners probably had to shell out some cash to speed the denotification process, in addition to the money they hand over routinely. The cost of all those bribes gets passed on to customers, making alcohol prohibitively expensive. That highway, meanwhile, will no longer be maintained by the state government. Having lost that status, it is likely to suffer from poorer maintenance as well. And that is how what began as a clampdown on liquor shops will lead to poorer roads in Indian cities. Bad roads, by the way, caused 2,733 fatalities in India in 2015. I suspect a few former highways will contribute to that figure in the next report put out by the Transport Research Wing.