In a judgment delivered earlier this week, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court issued directions to the states and union territories to desist from granting licenses for the sale of alcohol along national and state highways, and also directed that no liquor shop be located within five hundred metres of the highway. Although the Court began its judgment with a nod to judicial review, in my view, it failed to demonstrate the legal source of its power to pass the directions that it did. This is evidenced by its reference, in paragraph 24(vii), to the constitutional catch-all:
“These directions issue under Article 142 of the Constitution.”
As I have argued before, however, Article 142 is not a carte blanche; it specifies that “the Supreme Court in the exercise of its jurisdiction may pass such decree or make such order as is necessary for doing complete justice in any cause or matter pending before it.” A preliminary condition for the applicability of Article 142, therefore, is that the Supreme Court act within its jurisdiction. One aspect of this, surely, is that the Court act in accordance with the separation of powers, even if it is the loose and flexible separation of powers that exists under the Indian Constitution. Now, under the Constitution, the power to grant liquor licenses rests with the states (under List II of the Seventh Schedule), and indeed, this legal fact was admitted by the Court in paragraph 13. Directions to the state governments not to grant licenses for alcohol shops appear to encroach directly upon the legislative function, and therefore – prima facie – fall outside the “jurisdiction” of the Court.
The Court made two arguments to justify this exercise of power. First, it referred to a number of government policy documents that drew a correlation between alcohol consumption and road accidents. It also referred to the fact that the union Ministry had issued circulars “advising” the State governments not to grant any new licenses to liquor shops along the highways. However, at no point did the Court hold or observe that these policy documents or circulars had any kind of statutory or legal force. And in any event, as the Court itself admitted, the circulars were limited to the national highways, since the Union had no jurisdiction over state highways. In its judgment, however, the Court extended its directions to both national and state highways, and provided this by way of justification:
“The power of the states to grant liquor licences is undoubted. The issue is whether such liquor licences should be granted on national and state highways at the cost of endangering human lives and safety. In our view, which is based on the expert determination of the Union government, we hold that the answer should be in the negative.”
With respect, this is not the issue. The issue is whether the Court is acting within its jurisdiction by taking over the function of the state legislatures to regulate liquor licenses, and on that question, the judgment remains silent. While the reasoning would be unexceptionable if it was in the Statement of Objects and Reasons of a Bill being tabled in a state assembly, it fails to address the essential issue of the Court’s jurisdiction, which is the precondition to the exercise of Article 142 power. Reference to the “expert determination” of the Union government does not help, because the question is not whether the Union government’s determination was correct or incorrect, but which body is authorised to act upon that determination.
Secondly, the Court made a brief mention of Article 21, observing that “… the court [is] not fashion[ing] its own policy but enforc[ing] the right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution based on the considered view of expert bodies.” While this pithy formulation is not developed further, an argument could be made that in granting liquor licenses along state highways, the state governments are failing in their positive duty to protect the fundamental right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution. Consequently, the Court’s directions – under Article 142 – are within its jurisdiction, since the Court is only performing its constitutional duty to ensure that the State abides by fundamental rights (whether in their negative or their positive aspects).
However, if this was the legal foundation of the judgment (and I can see no other), then the Court – I would suggest – was required to rest it on firmer evidentiary foundation than it did in the present case, and also, to provide a legal test for the degree of proximity required between State (in)action and the loss of life, for Article 21 (in its positive aspect) to be attracted. There are a lot of things that the State does or does not do, that ultimately affect peoples’ lives. For instance, people would probably live longer, and there would be fewer deaths by heart attacks, if the State was to ban all junk food. That, however, would not justify the Court invoking Article 21 and directing the State to ban all junk food.
The Court – as pointed out above – referred to the Union’s circulars and policy documents, which had found a correlation between access to liquor along highways and road deaths, and then observed that it would defer to these findings. However, this was not a case where the Court was adjudicating upon the validity of administrative action, where a simple, deferential approach would be appropriate. Here, the Court was using the Union’s policy documents to make a finding that the states were in breach of their obligations under Article 21. This, I would submit, requires more exacting scrutiny (and a legal test of causation) than what the Court engaged in.
Lastly, although the Court correctly followed precedent in holding that there was no fundamental right under Article 19(1)(g) to trade in alcohol, in my view, it missed an important aspect: while the right to trade in alcohol might not be a fundamental right, surely the right to consume alcohol – as an aspect of personal choice – is a fundamental right (Article 21). The Court may still have returned a finding that the limited removal of access to alcohol along highways did not affect the content of the right in any meaningful way, but it at least ought to have acknowledged the existence of the right, and engaged with the fact that there was some interference with it.
Unlike some recent orders delivered by other benches, the Supreme Court’s judgment in this case made a substantive attempt to ground itself within the parametres of the Constitution. In my view, however, in order to be persuasive, its reasoning needed to be substantially stronger than what it was.