The Highway Ban

The Supreme Court of India’s ban on liquor sales along highways led to the closure of bars and pubs on Bengaluru’s MG Road and Brigade Road, mistakenly identified as part of NH-4 and NH-7. The excise department’s order, based on outdated map information, ignored the city’s changed highway network, reflecting a broader issue with government map coordination. The Supreme Court later clarified that the ban should not

This article was first published in The Mint. You can read the original at this link.

Anyone who has visited Bengaluru, even if just for one night, will know that MG Road and Brigade Road constitute the beating heart of the city’s night life. Along these roads—and those that connect to them and spill off from them in all directions—are located over 300 establishments that support the vibrant night life of India’s pub city. This includes five star hotels, micro-breweries, restaurants, pubs and bars of varying description.

On 1 July, the day the rest of India took a deep breath and dived into a new indirect tax regime, life along these two roads came to a grinding halt.

Late last year, the Supreme Court of India banned the sale of liquor along all state and national highways. India has the highest number of road accidents in the world and the leading cause of fatalities is drunken driving. The apex court concluded that prevention was better than cure and accordingly decreed that licences should no longer be issued to liquor shops located along the national and state highways.

The court’s reasoning is sound. Highways are the arteries that connect the towns and cities to each other and given the usually excellent quality of the tarmac on these roads, vehicles can travel along them at high speeds, free, for the most part, of the drag of urban traffic. Under these circumstances, if a driver’s judgment is clouded by alcohol, there is no doubt that accidents might well occur. If prevention can mitigate, even in small measure, the resultant fatalities, then the decision to close liquor vends next to highways is warranted.

What doesn’t make sense to me is how all of this applies to bars and pubs on MG Road and Brigade Road—two narrow, traffic encrusted streets nestled deep in the heart of the third largest city in the country—as far as possible from the highways that the Supreme Court is looking to regulate.

So I took a closer look at the letter ordering the closure of bars and pubs. It seems that the excise department has based its order on a finding that MG Road and Brigade Road are a part of NH-4 and NH-7 respectively. It was on that ground alone that the order to shut down liquor vends situated within 500 metres of those roads had been passed.

Now this makes even less sense. According to the website of the ministry of road transport and highways of the government of India, NH-4 is located in the Andamans and connects Mayabandar, Port Blair and Chiriyatapu. NH-7, on the other hand, starts at the India-Pakistan border and runs through Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Both do not, even remotely, touch Bengaluru city. A little more digging revealed that while NH-4 and NH-7 did once pass through Bengaluru, in 2010, all national highways were renamed so they could be organized more systematically. The excise department seems to have based its order on outdated map information.

If this isn’t embarrassing enough, the excise department seems to have ignored the fact that Bengaluru has, over the years, built a series of ring roads for the express purpose of diverting highway traffic and for many years now, the highway network itself has completely bypassed the heart of the city.

Why the excise department chose to go ahead and order the shutdown, despite having access to this information, is inexplicable. In this age of electronic information and interconnected databases, surely our government should at least take decisions based on up-to-date information contained in the databases of other departments of the government.

Close to two decades ago, I assisted the department of science and technology with the development of the national spatial data infrastructure—a project designed to organize government map resources coherently so that the different departments generating and using map data could efficiently layer their maps over each other using consistent and compatible metadata standards for the benefit of all. The intention was to ensure that everyone works off the same map information to ensure consistency in administration.

Twenty years on, it seems as if the government is still struggling to access accurate map information, so much so that the orders it issues do more harm than good. Rather than continuing to enforce outdated restrictions on the export of maps, the government would do well to focus its energies on ensuring that all its departments are reading off the same page.

A few hours before this article went to print, the Supreme Court made an observation that the ban should not apply to roads within the city if the state government has de-notified them. This should spare the government some blushes.

But only if this is a lesson well learnt.