The Supreme Court may have, in the interest of safe driving banned the sale of alcohol within 500 m of highways from April 1, but it’s business as usual in ore-rich Ballari and several other districts of the state where liquor continues to be sold in violation of excise laws. The liquor mafia continues to function with the help of corrupt cops and excise officials, with hooch being sold in dhabas and even kirana stores. The law is nearly impossible to implement. Is denotifying state highways the only option? Shivakumar G. Malagi, Naushad Bijapur, K.N. Reddy, M.B. Girish and Gururaj A. Paniyadi report.
It doesn't take one very long to find liquor outlets ready to serve you their finest in Kudligi town, located near National Highway 50 in this ore- rich district. The dhaba and confectionery shop owners readily guide you to them. While one liquor shop serves customers with its shutters half pulled down, another, reportedly run by a local politician , operates barely 50 metres from the highway, in total defiance of the Supreme Court order that liquor must be sold 500 metres from highways in general and 200 metres from them in areas with a population of less than 20,000.
In Toranagallu, a bustling industrial town along the National Highway 63, a liquor shop has its doors open a mere 100 meters from it, right next to a popular dhaba.
Going by the locals, Kudligi, one of the most backward subdivisions of the state, is in the grip of the illegal liquor mafia backed by corrupt police, excise officers and politicians. It’s not exactly a surprise then when you come across licensed liquor vendors supplying liquor in bulk to a petty shop located near a dhaba on commission. The shopowner in turn sells the liquor to customers for an exorbitant price.
"This is common in every village along the national highways. But what is surprising here is that the villagers hold an open auction to select who should run the illicit liquor shop and the highest bidder gets to do it," says Thippesh, a youth from MB Ayinahalli village on NH 50. Despite the bold defiance of the Supreme Court ban, the police doesn’t seem to care very much and turns a blind eye to the sale of liquor along the highways, say the villagers.
Liquor outlet owners prepare for battle
Despite repeated raids by the excise department, dhabas and other outlets in the district continue selling liquor along the 201 km -long National Highway 4 and the 90 km-long National Highway 4A in violation of its guidelines that prohibit sale of liquor within 220 meters of highways in areas with a population of 20,000. Blatantly ignoring the excise rules, at least 56 liquor outlets are located around 25 kms from the national and state highways in the district. In fact, the highway between Jatt and Jamboti, which saw the most number of road accident cases in the state last year, has the highest number of such outlets operating illegally alongside it.
Although issued notices by the department, owners of many of these liquor shops have gone to court, claiming they don’t have an alternative location to shift to. Many also argue that their liquor shops were opened before the excise department's rules were amended in 1994 While several offices of the excise department in the state have not yet received the recent order of the Supreme Court also banning sale of liquor near highways, the owners of these liquor outlets are reportedly preparing for a fresh battle and are looking for loopholes to escape action.
‘Effective policing is key’
She knows better than anyone else how hard the liquor mafia is to crack. Having served as the DySP of Kudligi in Ballari, Anupama Shenoy fought the liquor lobby and succeeded in controlling the illegal sale of liquor in the district. Ask her about the blatant violation of the Supreme Court ban on sale of liquor near national highways in the state today and she says it can be enforced only through effective policing. “Liquor is sold illegally and in secret to customers in the small hotels and dhabas near the national highways and other places. I had stopped this in Kudligi. The police and excise officials need to be given a free hand in dealing with this if they are to succeed,” she said.
Referring to reports that the state government is planning to denotify the highways to circumvent the Supreme Court ban, she warns that if this is true, it is not a good move. "It will send a wrong message and affect the reputation of the government,” she underlined. In her view, when the government itself sets a target for the sale of liquor to generate more revenue, it is difficult to control it. The former DySP also believes it is not easy to arrive at the exact number of deaths caused by drunken driving. Pointing out that the blood sample is not drawn when there is a death in a road accident, she says without it you cannot tell if the person had consumed alcohol. "So the police department cannot have a clear picture of how many deaths are caused due to drunken driving,” she explained.
‘I clear about 400 beer bottles a day in Bandipur’
Hundreds of empty beer bottles strewn along the National Highway 67 running through the Bandipur National Park tell their own story. The Supreme Court may have banned sale of liquor along national and state highways, but this is clearly not stopping tourists and others driving through the park from stocking up on it and gulping it down, while on the road, right under the nose of forest officials.
It’s easy to get high on alcohol when driving through Bandipur as there are hardly any checks on vehicles at the Melkamanahalli checkpost on the Gundlupet side.
Garbage collector Ayub, who clears the rubbish inside the park once every two days, says dumping of empty beer bottles is on the rise in Bandipur. “The beer bottles outnumber empty bottles of non-alcoholic drinks in the park. I don’t leave any broken bottles around as they can injure wild animals like elephants that may step on them,” he says.
Ayub, who makes a living by collecting the empty bottles and selling them to a dealer in Mysuru, says he clears about 400 beer bottles and hundreds of packaged drinking water bottles dumped on the roadside in the park. Having done the job for the last 14 years, Ayub is growing increasingly concerned about the impact that this dumping of rubbish can have on the wild animals. Ask forest officials about tourists drinking and driving through Bandipur and they agree that checking needs to be intensified at the Melkamanahalli check-post. “Not all vehicles are subjected to checks and so people can get away carrying liquor bottles on them,” they admit.
Booze ban to have devastating impact on Kalaburagi
The Supreme Court order banning sale of alcohol within 500 metres of all state and national highways is likely to have a devastating impact on liquor traders in Kalaburagi city as only six wine shops and bars and restaurants are not affected by it. Over a 100 other wine shops and bars and restaurants in the city and around 250 in the district may have to be relocated if the order is enforced in its present form, says Dr Rajesh Kadechur, a social worker and a prominent leader of the Idiga community here.
Shifting the liquor outlets in Kalaburagi city is not going to be easy as the residential areas are merely a 100 feet away from its commercial hub, according to him. “Under the excise rules, liquor outlets cannot be located in residential areas and near schools, hospitals, temples and government offices. So the only solution may be to set up separate liquor vending zones or clusters, but will this be possible?, ” he asks.
While those in the liquor vending business believe the Supreme Court’s ban is well intended, they warn it could hit the consumers hard and lead to more corruption as it is difficult to enforce. “We all know how the liquor business operates. The traders resort to clandestine operations whenever the law comes down hard on them. This could happen again. The traders could start selling liquor at dhabas , kirana shops and other outlets, and this in turn could lead to more extortion by the police and excise officials. In the process the state exchequer could robbed of revenue,” Dr Kadechur warns.
Some liquor traders seem to think the state government will be left with no option but to denotify the state highways and national highways and merely call them district roads to circumvent the ban as has been done by a few other states already. They may not be wrong, as some officials claim moves are already underway in Kalaburagi city to declare all roads, including the existing ring road passing through it, as district roads.
Not a fan of the Supreme Court ban, Dr Kadechur argues that the most effective way to curb drunken driving is to create more awareness and increase the penalty for it. “When AIDS first broke out in the country, many feared that owing to the many illiterates we still we have in the country, it would wreak havoc. But by creating awareness, we have been able to effectively curb its spread. This could work with drunk driving too,” he suggests.