This is why the Supreme Court should take some blame for India’s economic crisis

The Print, November 05, 2019

Within just a few years, Supreme Court’s judgments — from 2G to coal block cancellations — have slowed the Indian economy, say experts.

When top lawyer Harish Salve said he “squarely blamed” the Supreme Court of India for some of the problems ailing the economy, many tried to dismiss it as rhetoric that sought to divert attention from the policy failings of the Narendra Modi government.

But Salve, who traced the origin of the slowdown to the court’s 2G spectrum verdict, may have been onto something.

At the heart of the argument sparked by Salve lie major Supreme Court verdicts delivered over the last seven years — cancellation of the 2G spectrum licences, coal block allotments, mining leases in Goa, and the court’s foray into policy-making through orders such as the highway liquor ban.

With the economic crisis only deepening, ThePrint analyses the Supreme Court judgments that are seen to have played a role in it.

Highway liquor ban

The Supreme Court’s “excessive judicial activism”, as some critics have called it, is not just limited to cases involving corruption and irregularities, but also those about executive inaction.

One such order was the court’s December 2016 judgment, banning the sale of alcohol within a distance of 500 metres on national and state highways across the country. The ban was supposed to be implemented from 1 April 2017. The reason: To curb accidents due to “drunken driving”.

A lack of clarity on how to measure this distance prompted malls and stores to change entry point for customers, bypassing the judgment. Faced with unemployment as well as lobbying by powerful trade associations, a few states also took to denotifying highways.

Amid all this, a NITI Aayog-sponsored study, conducted by policy think-tank Consumer Unity & Trust Society (CUTS) International, pegged the notional negative impact on business for the period between April and September 2017 to be around Rs 496 crore, for every 1,000 km of highway.

The CUTS study, released in March 2018, also took into account the claim by Riyaz Amlani, president of the National Restaurant Association of India (NRAI), that the judgment had an estimated impact of Rs 10,000-15,000 crore and job losses of 100,000.

Additionally, it suggested that there was no significant reduction in drink driving cases after the SC order.

Relief came from the Supreme Court in August 2017, when it clarified that the ban did not apply within city limits. A month before that, it had also allowed state authorities to denotify highways passing through the municipal limits.

A year later, the petitioner in the case, Harman Sidhu claimed that almost 70 per cent of the national and state highways across the country had managed to get exempted from the Supreme Court order.

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