Bihar set to ease stringent liquor prohibition law

Published on Mar 09, 2022 10:08 PM IST

The Bihar Cabinet has approved changes to the state’s liquor prohibition law to make it less stringent for the first-time offenders and those caught carrying liquor in small quantities, officials familiar of the matter said.

Seized liquor bottles being destroyed in Patna. (HT Photo)
Seized liquor bottles being destroyed in Patna. (HT Photo)
By, Patna

The Bihar Cabinet has approved changes to the state’s liquor prohibition law to make it less stringent for the first-time offenders and those caught carrying liquor in small quantities, officials familiar of the matter said.

The changes will come into force after the state assembly, which is currently in session, approves them.

The liquor prohibition law, enforced in April 2016, bans manufacture, sale, and consumption of liquor. It provides for up to life imprisonment for serious offences and confiscation of houses, vehicles and other properties from where liquor is seized.

The Bihar government has drawn widespread criticism, even from the constituents of the ruling alliance, for its alleged poor implementation of the prohibition law, which has been blamed for hooch tragedies that have claimed dozens of lives. Former chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi’s party, which is a part of the government, has even demanded a repeal of the law.

Chief minister Nitish Kumar, whose government had brought the law, has remained unmoved by political criticism, claiming in February this year that 16 million people in the state have given up drinking liquor since prohibition was enforced. Bihar had a population of 104.1 million as per the Census 2011.

However, the state government has also faced fire in the Supreme Court, which has said on more than one occasion that the law was impacting the functioning of the judiciary, with 14-15 Patna high court judges only hearing the bail pleas relating to arrests made under the prohibition law. The court said every bench in the Supreme Court is dealing with petitions arising out of the prohibition law in Bihar which was brought without any legislative impact study.

Finally, on Tuesday, the state government told the Supreme Court the law would be modified.

In July 2018, the law was amended to dilute some of the stringent provisions. For first-time offenders who store, manufacture or sell liquor, the punishment was reduced from 10-year jail term and 10 lakh fine to five years in jail and 1 lakh fine. The amendment also scrapped a fine on an entire community in case liquor was found to be frequently manufactured and sold in a particular area. The 2018 amendment also did away with a mandatory jail term for first-time offence in case of consumption of liquor and replaced with a fine of 50,000 or three months in jail.

As per Bihar Police records, 3,48,170 cases were lodged and 4,01,855 arrests under the law until October last year. About 20,000 bail pleas in such cases were pending either in the high court or in trial courts.

An excise and prohibition department official said those caught having liquor for the first time would not require courts to provide them relief once the law is amended again. Magistrates or deputy collectors or other officers in their ranks or above can give bail to the first-time offenders. Currently, those arrested for consuming alcohol are jailed and need to get bails from courts.

The new amendments propose that small non-commercial vehicles caught carrying small quantities of alcohol can be released after penalties are imposed. Under the existing law, such vehicles are impounded and auctioned.

The proposed amendments seek to empower district magistrates to destroy liquor at the places of recovery. Earlier, the district authorities needed permission from the government for this. They will have to keep electronic records of the destruction.

In July last year, the Patna high court directed all proceedings related to confiscation of property under the law must be initiated/concluded within 90 days from the date of appearance of the parties. It added the appeal/revision, if any, be also decided within 30 days from the date of initiation, failing which the “things” (vehicle/property) shall be deemed to have been released.

The proposed amendments say any person arrested under law shall be produced before the nearest judicial magistrate or executive magistrate within 24 hours either in person or via electronic video linkage. For seeking custody also, production of seizures will not be necessary and electronic evidence will suffice.

Reacting to cabinet developments, RJD MLA Bhai Birendra and Congress leader Prem Chandra Mishra said the government’s bid to amend the prohibition law reflects the lack of vision. “Illegal trade of liquor runs unabated even though more than 40,000 poor people are languishing in the jails due to unnecessarily harsh provisions of the act,” said Birendra.

Mishra said the Congress has been seeking a review of the Act, as it had failed to enforce prohibition. “Instead of cracking down on the liquor consumers, the government should make foolproof arrangements to prevent smuggling of alcohol from other states,” said Mishra.

BJP spokesman Nikhil Anand said modifications were being done in keeping with the feedback from the people.

Key changes in liquor law

For first-time offenders

Magistrates or deputy collectors can give bail to first-time offenders, who will have to be produced before them within 24 hours of arrest. Currently, those arrested for consuming alcohol are jailed and need to get bails from courts.

Vehicle seizure

Small non-commercial vehicles caught carrying small quantities of alcohol can be released after payment of penalties. Under the existing law, such vehicles are impounded and auctioned.

Destruction of seized stock

Amendments seek to empower district magistrates to destroy liquor at the places of recovery. Earlier, district authorities needed permission from the government for this. They will have to keep electronic records of the destruction.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Subhash Pathak is special correspondent of Hindustan Times with over 15 years of experience in journalism, covering issues related to governance, legislature, police, Maoism, urban and road infrastructure of Bihar and Jharkhand.

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