Amid growing opposition, Bihar considers relaxation in liquor prohibition law
The Bihar government is now contemplating a relaxation in some of the stringent provisions of the anti-liquor law to provide relief for non-habitual offenders.
Faced with continued opposition, frequent hooch tragedies and harsh comments from the Supreme Court due to mounting legal cases, the Bihar government is now contemplating a relaxation in some of the stringent provisions of the anti-liquor law to provide relief for non-habitual offenders, said a senior official of the prohibition and excise department.
Additional chief secretary (home) Chaitanya Prasad said the state government intends to insert new sub-sections in the Bihar prohibition and excise (amendment) Act, 2016, to scale down the penal provisions and introduce financial penalties. The amendments may be brought through an ordinance or the proposed Bihar Prohibition and Excise (amendment) Bill, 2022, during the next session of the state legislature.
“Right now, inter-departmental consultations are on,” he added.
The move comes after the Supreme Court dismissed the state’s batch of appeals challenging grant of anticipatory and regular bails to accused under the liquor law, saying “the prosecution of the case should be made in all earnestness to secure conviction and punishment”.
“You know how much impact this law (The Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016 ) has created in the working of the Patna High Court and it is taking one year to get a matter listed there and all the courts are choked with the liquor bail matters,” chief justice of India N V Ramana had said during the hearing earlier this month.
As per official statistics, nearly 25 % of the total pendency of cases in lower courts and 20% in the High Court is from prohibition related cases. In 2019, alarmed by the growing pendency, the Patna High Court had asked the state government to present a plan for how it plans to dispose these cases related to excise. Though special courts were mandated in the new law for trial of liquor related cases, they could not be set up. Later. the state cabinet cleared a proposal for setting up 74 special courts, but virtual hearing for the last two years further added to pendency and lack of production of witnesses.
The proposed amendments, says the draft bill, offer to delete the section related to ‘non-compounding of offences’. Instead, it is intended to introduce a penalty, as may be notified by the state government, if anyone is found drunk at home or outside. Failure to pay penalty shall invite simple imprisonment of one month, but repeat offences may invite additional penalty or imprisonment or both.
All offences shall be disposed of through summary trial by an executive magistrate not below the rank of deputy collector. All investigations in such offences will be conducted by an excise officer or a police officer not below the rank of assistant sub-inspector, says the draft bill.
The proposed amendment also has a provision for release of vehicles/ animals used for carrying intoxicants or liquor by the collector upon payment of fixed penalty, failing which the collector shall proceed with confiscation proceedings.
In July last year, the Patna High Court had directed that all proceedings related to confiscation of property under the prohibition law must be initiated and concluded within a period of 90 days from the date of appearance of the parties concerned and the appeal/revision, if any, be also decided within a period of 30 days from the date of initiation, failing which, the “things” (vehicle/property/ etc.) shall be deemed to have been released in terms of several orders passed by this Court in the past
The amendments propose that any person arrested under the prohibition law shall be produced before the nearest judicial magistrate or the nearest executive magistrate within 24 hours either in person or through the medium of electronic video linkage. For seeking custody also, production of seizures will not be necessary and electronic evidence will suffice.
As per the proposed amendments, all offences shall be tried by special court(s) which may be presided by a sessions judge, additional sessions judge, assistant sessions judge or judicial magistrate. The state government may, if considered necessary in the public interest and depending upon the workload of existing special courts, appoint in every district of the state, more special court(s) in consultation with the chief justice of the High Court. The state government may also, in consultation with the chief Justice, appoint retired judges to preside over the special courts.
“In cases where offences are punishable with death or imprisonment for a term not less than l0 years, the report has to be filed within 90 days from the date of the registration of the case. In all other cases, the report needs to be filed within 60 davs from the date of the registration of the case,” the amendments state.
Last year, the state cabinet had given its nod to the Bihar prohibition and excise rules, 2021, for greater clarity with regard to implementation of the stringent prohibition law and reduce growing number of litigations. Besides, it also made provision for permission to distilleries in the state for manufacturing of extra neutral alcohol (ENA) and ethanol. Bihar last year became the first state in the country to have its Ethanol Production Promotion Policy, 2021, which promotes new standalone ethanol manufacturing units by providing them additional capital subsidy at 15% of the cost of plant and machinery up to a maximum of ₹5 crore.