None for the Road
Columns, In Black & White

None for the Road

June 10, 2017

Our legislators were high on Thursday… high on discussing how to circumnavigate Supreme Court’s order banning all bars 500 meters from a Highway — ‘One for the road’ is now ‘none for the road.’

But isn’t this well-intentioned judicial law-making a breach of the basic constitutional principle of separation of powers between the Legislature, Executive and the Judiciary?

True, the court under Article 142 has the power to pass any order as may be necessary for doing ‘complete justice’ in the matter before it. But when the rights of so many other interests and stakeholders have been ignored, is it “complete justice”? Also, is it pragmatic?

But our CM Siddharamaiah is very pragmatic as he said, “I have had liquor but I am not addicted to it. We cannot stop people from drinking. And if we shut shops, thousands of people depending on it will be on the streets.”

Interestingly, just as the discussion was getting serious, there was a spirited teaching session about liquor by BJP legislator Ramachandra Gowda who randomly said, “Have a beer without fear. But beer and then whiskey is very risky.” Everyone laughed. Who knew even talk of booze could drive away inhibitions.

Soon JD(S) MLA Sarvana told the house how alcohol helps in networking with a catchy line: “Drinks make links.” Thank God no one said “Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder.” Surely the next day headlines would read “High Spirited Sexism in Vidhana Soudha.”

But just when one thought the discussion was going down the drain …the CM got back on track and spoke about how he was going to sidestep the Supreme Court order — denotify stretches of Highways coming under the limits of urban civic bodies in the State. Yes, patches of National Highways and State Highways will become ordinary roads.

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But the truth is State Governments have to do this because lots of money is needed for government subsidies. And in Karnataka liquor pours in Rs.16,500 crore a year into our State’s exchequer! That’s the much-needed money for all the “Bhagya” schemes that our CM has doled out.  So a liquor ban could spell disaster for politicians, State finances and even the poor.

This reminds us of what British Prime Minster Winston Churchill said about liquor ban: “If you mean whiskey, the devil’s brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yes, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean that evil drink that topples men and women from the pinnacles of righteous and gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, shame, despair, helplessness, and hopelessness, then, my friend, I am opposed to it with every fibre of my being.”

“However, if by whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the elixir of life, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean good cheer, the stimulating sip that puts a little spring in the step of an elderly gentleman on a frosty morning; if you mean that drink that enables man to magnify his joy, and to forget life’s great tragedies and heartbreaks and sorrow; if you mean that drink the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars each year, that provides tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitifully aged and infirm, to build the finest highways, hospitals, universities, and community colleges in this nation, then my friend, I am absolutely, unequivocally in favour of it.”

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And now, our CM and CMs of other States too see the wealth that liquor brings and it far outweighs the tragedy, it’s a harsh reality. But more importantly, this side-stepping strategy of our CM and other CMs, raises a lot of questions.

If you denotify State Highways, then can the local bodies maintain these roads? And even if they can, budget has to be increased? Is there enough money?  Then there is the National Highway, if denotified, then the State has to bear the maintenance cost. Do we have enough money and expertise for that?

More importantly by finding a loophole to beat the Supreme Court order, are our governments setting a bad precedent?  And by circumnavigating the court order, are the State governments in contempt of court?

Sure, banning bars on Highways won’t change much as our CM has said. Ban is never the answer, regulating is. May be, if the Highway patrol did their job and fined, confiscated driver licences and seized trucks, then the drivers and owners would be more careful.

For now, this liquor ban by the SC and the State governments skirting around the ruling do not bode well for a Parliamentary Democracy. It weakens it because one institution has been impractical and overzealous in judicial law-making while the other is making a mockery of a ruling from the nation’s highest court. Pillars of Democracy cannot be at war with each other, else the platform of Democracy they uphold will collapse.

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