The Supreme Court gave State governments the discretion to decide on facts whether areas covered by local self-governing bodies or areas proximate to municipal pockets should be exempted from the Supreme Court’s nationwide prohibition on sale of liquor within 500 metres along highways.

On July 11, 2017, the apex court had exempted municipal areas from the prohibition. It said the sale ban was mainly focused on busy national and State highways inter-connecting cities, towns and villages along. The purpose of the ban imposed in a judgement in December 2016 was to prevent drunken driving along these busy thoroughfares. “The order does not prohibit licensed establishments within municipal areas,” Supreme Court had clarified in the July 11 order.

However, the July 11 order had triggered more questions than answers. States, primarily Tamil Nadu, had come back to the Supreme Court, asking whether panchayats would also be included within the definition of “municipal areas” mentioned in the order.

Tamil Nadu said that “municipal areas” in the July 11 order was not “intended to exclude areas within the jurisdiction of local self-governing bodies”. The States reasoned that in future these panchayats may be developed in a manner similar to municipalities or some of them may be geographically proximate to an urban agglomeration. They sought a clarification from the court about the “obvious uncertainties” thrown open by the order.

Without intervening, a Bench of Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justices Amitava Roy and D.Y. Chandrachud said the court leaves it in the hands of the State governments to make a decision after examining “whether an area covered by a local self-governing body is proximate to a municipal agglomeration or is sufficiently developed” to apply the exemption granted to municipal areas in the July 11 order.

“In deciding as to whether the principle which has been set down in the order dated 11 July 2017 should be extended to a local self-governing body (or statutory development authority) the State governments would take recourse to all relevant circumstances including the nature and extent of development in the area and the object underlying the direction prohibiting the sale of liquor on national and the State highways,” the Supreme Court ordered.

The court said it is left open to individual licensees to submit their representations to the competent authorities in the State to obviate both litigation before the High Courts and repeated recourse to applications to the apex court.