By Eshita Kapur, ILS Law College, Pune.

“After whisky, driving is risky”, is an adage one often gets to see while driving on highways in India. Road accidents, including those due to drunken driving, have been globally recognized as a serious public health issue. Being a signatory to the Brasilia Declaration, India is committed to bringing down its high load of fatalities due to road accidents, by 2020. [1] In view of the alarmingly high number of deaths occurring due to road accidents, the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India passed a historic judgment in December 2016 directing all States and Union Territories to cease and desist from granting licenses for sale of liquor along National and State highways.

The judgment is based on the statistics contained in the report titled ‘Road Accidents in India 2015’, published by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) in its Transport Research Wing and the two advisories issued by the National Road Safety Council and MoRTH, the two nodal departments with domain knowledge in this field.

The historic judgment is a very good move towards making our roads safer to drive on. At present, the legal provision for drunk driving has been inscribed in Section 185 of the Motor Vehicle Act, 1988 according to which, the minimum punishment for drunk driving is six months and the maximum punishment applicable for a subsequent offence is two years. Also in cases where drunk driving results in death it is treated as death due to negligence u/s 304A of IPC which prescribes a punishment of two years. According to the utilitarian philosophy, punishment for a criminal offence must be designed such that it serves as a deterrent to any such criminal conduct in the future. The current provisions need to be more stringent, such that one is scared to commit this crime. Other than merely having laws prescribing stringent punishments, their proper implementation is equally essential. For instance, we still see a lot of children less than 18 years of age driving on the roads, despite a law framed for the legal age of driving. Further, is this problem of road accidents confined only to the highways? A serious check on city roads is also urgently required.

It is pertinent to note here that the statistics actually show that maximum deaths on Indian roads are due to over speeding/ reckless driving. Driving under the influence of drug/alcohol accounted for only 2.7% of total deaths in road accidents in 2015, whereas dangerous driving/overtaking and over speeding accounted for a far higher share at 42.9% and 54.4% respectively[2]. One may say that alcohol can be a reason for over speeding, but the fact remains that firstly it would have been included in the statistics for drunk driving as the main cause, for it is alcohol consumption which has resulted in over speeding; secondly in today’s “need for speed” age, the fact that people drive on city roads as if driving on F1 racing tracks may not come as a surprise. Moreover, three of the top five states in India with the highest incidence of deaths (per lakh population) due to drunken driving have one of the lowest incidences of deaths owing to over speeding and dangerous driving. It is also interesting to note that Gujarat, a dry State, reported a total of 361 cases, and Daman and Diu, where duty free alcohol is available, recorded only 7 cases of drunk driving. [3]

The judgment is however criticized over one point. In the initial judgment, the Supreme Court had remarked that any exception to the said ban would dilute the basic objective of preventing drivers on highways from any temptation to grab a drink. However, due to the collaboration of State Government and Liquor lobbyists later, in the judgment, dated July 11th, 2017 the Supreme Court clarified that since roads within a city essentially provide connectivity within the City, the said Order does not prohibit licensed establishments within municipal areas, even if they are close to National or State highways. A ban on highways alone is not sufficient enough to deter drunken driving behavior, since there always is an opportunity for the driver to grab a drink before starting the journey and consume it while driving on the highway. The exception of municipal limits has provided him with an easier way to purchase alcohol, thus defeating the purpose of the ban altogether.

It is interesting to note that excise duty revenues from liquor have formed an important source of revenue for States averaging between 11-12% of States’ own tax revenues during 2014-17. [4] However, as pointed out by the Supreme Court, even though excise duty is an important source of revenue for the State Governments, a ban on licenses for liquor vends along the highways will only reiterate the duty of State as mentioned in Article 47 of the Directive Principles of State Policy. It is the duty of the State to raise the level of nutrition and standard of living, in turn working on improving public health. Hence, a strong step needs to be taken in this direction by the State Government.

The current debate is focussed on the fact that the provisions contained in the Directive Principles of State Policy are not enforceable by any Court including the Supreme Court. The principles laid down are nevertheless fundamental in the governance of the Country and it shall be the duty of the State to apply these principles in making laws. The Supreme Court states that the said orders have been issued by it under Article 142 of the Constitution of India, whereby the Supreme Court has the right to pass such decree or make such order, as is necessary for rendering complete justice in any cause or matter pending before it.

The judgment is indeed strong in its implications, although finally, it is a mere stepping stone towards making our roads safer. Its impact ultimately hinges upon its quality of implementation.

References:

[1] Road Accidents in India 2015, published by The Ministry of Road Transport & Highways Transport Research Wing.

[2] Source:  Accidental Deaths & Suicides in India 2015, National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB); Population Projections for India and States 2001-2026, Registrar General of India; Author’s analysis.

[3] Road Accidents in India,2015, Ministry of Road Transport and Highways Transport Research Wing..