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Speed is relative. Einstein told us so.  And now the Supreme Court of India has informed us!

In December of last year, the court ordered shut all liquor vends within a distance of 500 metres of all national and state highways. The ostensible argument was drivers were getting drunk and creating irreparable loss of life and limb. In a limited sense it was a nationwide prohibition although there was little empirical evidence to support the court’s decision.

And don’t we know what prohibition entails? Gujarat has had prohibition since the beginning of dawn, or let’s say May 1960. But if you want booze in Ahmedabad, you don’t go looking for it, booze will come to you. Saudi Arabia officially does not know what whiskey is, but the bootlegging industry there is almost as famous as the other stuff it produces–oil. Funny, the word ‘underground’ has different connotations in the same place. There is even a popular brand, again underground of course, called ‘Jeddah Gin’. And Bihar? Till last year there were eight main rivers flowing into the state. Now there is a ninth. You know what I mean.

The short point is, prohibition has never succeeded anywhere in the world and the Supreme Court can try as it might, but drinking and driving will mix regardless of where the booze shop is situated. Perhaps there are other ways to reduce it, but the court apparently did not know them.

That said, the court’s order brought out the best of Indian ingenuity. Some states de-notified their highways, giving real-life expression to “Udta Punjab”. If there are no highways, where is the question of measuring distances from them?

In other states, a number of liquor vends suddenly found themselves more than 500 metres away from highways without moving an inch. The order pertained to ‘motorable’ distance, so they closed their gates at one end and opened them at the other. The motorists were cleverer. They parked their vehicles on these highways and walked across to the bars and everybody went home high and happy.

Everybody, that is, except those who could not find ways to ‘legally’ circumvent the order. And their number was in thousands. This is India, remember. No small measures here. Most hotels in metros lost business while their employees lost their jobs. Bars downed their shutters, their owners lost millions. Tourists, both local and foreign, lost interest in India. (No, they were not touring to drink, but a drink at the end of a day’s sightseeing is what most tourists would like to unwind with.)  The tourism industry suffered huge losses. States that counted excise incomes from liquor as one of their prime sources of revenue had to scale down expenditure plans.

After so much has been lost, the court now says it’s okay to have bars within cities because, abracadabra, “there is no fast-moving traffic” in India’s cities. This is much consoling but a little confusing too. Are we now looking at distance from the highways or the speed of traffic on them? If it’s the latter, then is there an optimum speed at which one can drink and drive? If there is one, can we fix that speed for all of Indian roads so that anyone who wants to drink and drive anywhere can do so without fear of being hauled up as long as he observes that limit? Speed, after all, is relative, isn’t it?

From now on you could spot a law-abiding drunk behind the wheel pretty quickly. He will stay on extreme left lane. And the guy who has his foot on the pedal to the floor is obviously clean as a champagne flute!  DUI suddenly becomes a safe thing! Wonders never cease, because this is India!

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