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Bihar liquor ban: Such prohibitions rarely work

Instead of taking the total prohibition route, the State could consider launching awareness campaigns that drive home the demerits of irresponsible drinking. This must be approached from a medical perspective, not a moral one.

editorials Updated: Jul 27, 2018 10:17 IST
Hindustan Times
Despite the high number of arrests, the government drew criticism from the Opposition for its inability to enforce the ban that has driven the liquor trade underground(HT)

Facing a backlash over the misuse of the law, particularly the draconian provisions of the liquor prohibition bill, the Bihar government on Monday passed amendments to the stringent Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016. According to the amended law, instead of undergoing a five-year jail term, a first-time offender will be able to walk free after paying a fine of Rs 50,000. The amended provisions also do away with a collective penalty on a group of people or residents of a village if they are found to be repeat offenders.

This is a political U-turn of sorts for chief minister Nitish Kumar, an ardent advocate of total prohibition. Just last year, Mr Kumar had said the liquor ban had helped bring down the crime rate in the state. In December, he had called for a nationwide ban on the sale of alcohol. According to government figures, since April 2016, 1,41,861 people have been arrested for breaking the prohibition law in the state. More than 8,000 are still behind bars. Many of those engaged in producing fruit-based alcoholic drinks, from poor and marginalised backgrounds, were forced into low paying jobs.

Despite the high number of arrests, the government drew criticism from the Opposition for its inability to enforce the ban that has driven the liquor trade underground. While there is a clear connection between alcohol and social ills such as domestic abuse and poverty emanating from excessive consumption, the panacea isn’t always total prohibition. Some of the harsher provisions of Bihar’s anti-prohibition law, in which entire villages could be held culpable if someone who lived there was caught drinking, were criticised by many. Anyone who allowed drinkers to gather at his house, for instance, was punished with a minimum eight-year jail term extendable to 10 years with a fine of up to Rs 10 lakh. To rule that all adult members of a house can be punished if even one person stores or consumes liquor was seen to be against the tenets of criminal jurisprudence. Measures such as these can be used to settle personal vendettas or harass people. Even as the State is within its rights to spread awareness about the problems associated with excessive consumption, penalising so many people can be construed as undemocratic and futile. A parallel economy of bootleggers simply takes away the revenue from the government.

Although prohibition has often been used by politicians to appeal to the emotions of voters, particularly women, implementation has proved next to impossible in most Indian states, barring Gujarat. Mizoram, Haryana and Andhra Pradesh, to name a few, are among the states that experimented with it before giving it up.

Instead of taking the total prohibition route, the State could consider launching awareness campaigns that drive home the demerits of irresponsible drinking. This must be approached from a medical perspective, not a moral one.

First Published: Jul 27, 2018 10:17 IST