Saturday, 1 April 2017

Trident & The Oberoi Gurgaon Open New Entrance Gate; DLF Stretches Approach Road to Cyber Hub to Nudge Past 500m Limit in Liquor Ban Order. Ill-Advised Move, Says Industry.

With the Supreme Court not relenting on its
judgment banning the sale and service of liquor
within 500m of national and state highways, the
days ahead will see the Delhi and Haryana excise
departments embroiled in arguments over the
interpretation of the 500m rule with the affected
hotels and restaurants. 

  • No liquor sales allowed in the five NH-48 hotels -- The Oberoi Gurgaon, Trident Gurgaon, Westin, Crowne Plaza Today and The Leela Ambience -- and the Cyber Hub, Sohna Road and Sector-29 Market till a committee to be appointed by the Haryana Excise Department is able to earmark which of the hotels and restaurants are within the 500m Lakshman Rekha. It will include, I am told, representatives from the Department of Town Planning and the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI).
  • The ban also spurred the Delhi Excise Department to ask ITC Maurya, Taj Palace, Hyatt Regency New Delhi, The Suryaa, Radisson Blu Plaza Mahipalpur, and the New Delhi Aerocity hotels to suspend their liquor sales. Restaurants in New Friends Colony, Friends Club and the iconic Indian Accent have also been barred from selling alcohol.
  • Representatives of the industry say the "ill-advised judgment" will not only deny thousands their daily livelihood, but also send wrong signals out to the world, which India cannot afford because of its already very low international tourist arrival count.
  • In a show of industry unity, Vikram Oberoi, President, Hotel Association of India, and Managing Director and CEO, EIH Limited, will address a media conference at 3 p.m. on Sunday, April 2, along with representatives of the Federation of Hotel and Restaurant Association of India (FHRAI) and the National Restaurant Association of India (NRAI).


The Trident Gurgaon and The Oberoi Gurgaon
shut down their main entrance gates and posted
security personnel on the pedestrian path skirting
the combined boundary wall with placards
pointing to the re-designated entrance at the
back -- the old staff entrance.  
WHAT THE learned judges of the Supreme Court had hoped would be a body blow to drunken driving on the national and state highways may just turn out to be the trigger for our collective talent for jugaad to find innovative ways to circumvent their order against the sale and service of liquor within 500m of national and state highways (and slip roads emanating out of them).Trident Gurgaon and The Oberoi Gurgaon, which are uncomfortably close to the National Highway No. 48 (formerly No. 8), have shut their regular entrance gates and turned their staff gate into their new joint entrance (the additional drive is less than five minutes). Likewise, DLF has extended the approach road to the Cyber Hub. The action may be following the letter of the Supreme Court judgment, but it may not hold ground when the final word on the most contentious part of the verdict is out.
Did the three honourable judges -- Chief Justice J.S. Kehar, Justice D.Y. Chandrachud (the author of the judgment) and Justice L. Nagewara Rao, who not only have impeccable credentials and blemish-free track records, but are also non-political and forward looking -- use the expression "as the crow flies" or "motorable distance"?
Rahul Singh, owner of The Beer Cafe chain of beer bars, and General Secretary, National Restaurant Association of India (NRAI), who's the hotel and restaurant community's go-to person on legal matters, insists that "motorable distance" is the expression used. Using this argument, Singh maintained that the Cyber Hub restaurants are outside the purview of the judgment because they are located at a "motorable distance" of a kilometre and half away from NH-48. This became possible overnight because the turn that people normally would take to enter Cyber City has been blocked, leaving us with no alternative other than taking the U-turn farther away.
As the Delhi and Haryana excise departments went on an overdrive asking all hotel and restaurant operators in the immediate vicinity of the national and state highways to stop serving liquor from today (April 1), they were not very forthcoming about the interpretation of the judgment they would follow. But why should people go to such lengths to "legally" circumvent the Supreme Court's order? It is because the learned judges, while justifiably attacking the menace of drunken driving, have unwittingly hit at the hotel and restaurant business, whose patrons normally wouldn't include truckers, where it hurts the most.
  • The learned judges have made the playing field for the hospitality sector uneven by giving hotels and restaurants beyond the 500m barrier an unfair advantage. By stripping hotels within the 500m limit their right to serve alcoholic beverages, the judges unwittingly cast a shadow on their rooms business (for an international corporate traveller, moving into a hotel that doesn't serve alcohol is the equivalent of being asked to go to Saudi Arabia) and also the booming business of marriages, where liquor flows generously in the pre- and post-nuptial functions.
  • For restaurants, it means the end of the road, for it's an established fact that any restaurant that is not a part of a fast food chain, starts attracting footfalls only after it gets a liquor licence. Worse, all the affected restaurants in Delhi and Haryana have just completed paying for their annual licence renewals, which they assumed would be protected after the arguments articulated by Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi in their favour in the run-up to the judgment.
  • The learned judges have ignored one of the original intentions behind building the national and state highways, an idea dear to former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. These were to be the arteries of a New India that were to spur the development of the hospitality sector, one of the biggest employers of people and generators of revenues for the national and state exchequers.
  • The learned judges have not taken into account the reasonably logical argument that drunken driving has less to do with the availability of liquor on the national and state highways, than with the poor enforcement of the laws. The Centre and the state governments have to answer for how much they have (or haven't) invested in making our highways safe. Why have they not created a strong network of well-equipped, well-connected highway patrol units with the power to take action against drunk driving and other violations of the traffic laws on the highways?
Banning the sale of liquor on the highways is the easy way out -- and there's an easy way of circumventing it, as people have shown in Gurgaon and Goa. In Goa, the owners of highway vends are just moving into the nearby villages to dodge the 500m rule. It's not physically possible for hotels and restaurants to relocate with such ease. They have to suffer in silence.

  • The fate of the Gurgaon hotels on the National Highway 48 -- The Oberoi, Trident, Westin, Crowne Plaza Today and The Leela Ambience -- hangs entirely on the yardstick -- "as the crow flies" versus "motorable distance" -- that the Haryana Excise Department will eventually use to interpret and implement the judgment.
  • Restaurants and bars on Sohna Road and some in the Sector-29 Market, which was fast growing into Gurgaon's microbrewery hub, are in trouble, the former because they are bang on the highway, and the latter, because of the PWD road leading up to the market from the national highway.
  • Sector-29 Market, which is owned by the Haryana Urban Development Authority (HUDA), can be saved only if the Haryana government, taking a leaf out of the Chandigarh administration, converts the connecting road into a district road, which make it outside the purview of the Supreme Court order. But is it too late for such an action?
  • The ban will of course affect the highway liquor vends the most. Ironically, the owner of a chain of these vends, Neeraj Sachdeva's Lakeforest Wines, most recently paid Rs 65 crore to the state government in an open bid for the exclusive right to sell alcoholic beverages in Gurgaon. Sachdeva must be ruing the day he made the bid.
  • Immediately across the border, the party seems to be over for the New Delhi Aerocity hotels. Measured from the national highway, these hotels, which have barely overcome the 'security clearance' surprise sprung upon them by the Delhi Police after they were ready to open a couple of years back, insist they are more than 500m away.
  • The Delhi Excise Department, though, is measuring the distance of these hotels from the service road that emanates from the highway. In the days ahead, one can foresee the excise department and the affected restaurants and hotels having lengthy arguments over the interpretation of the Supreme Court's order.
  • ITC Maurya, Taj Palace, Hyatt Regency New Delhi, The Suryaa, Radisson Blu Plaza Mahipalpur, and the New Delhi Aerocity hotels have been asked to suspend their liquor sales. Restaurants in New Friends Colony, Friends Club and the iconic Indian Accent have also been barred from selling alcohol.