SC asks Bihar what study it went by to prohibit liquor | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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SC asks Bihar what study it went by to prohibit liquor

Feb 25, 2022 12:34 AM IST

Faced with a deluge of bail petitions arising out of Bihar government’s 2016 liquor prohibition law, the Supreme Court has asked the state government whether it conducted any study before framing the law and created a judicial infrastructure adequate to meet the torrent of litigation that was bound to follow

Faced with a deluge of bail petitions arising out of Bihar government’s 2016 liquor prohibition law, the Supreme Court has asked the state government whether it conducted any study before framing the law and created a judicial infrastructure adequate to meet the torrent of litigation that was bound to follow.

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A bench of justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and MM Sundresh underlined that almost every bench in the Supreme Court is dealing with petitions arising out of the Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act — making it imperative to know whether the Bihar government carried out a legislative impact study and upgraded the judicial infrastructure to meet the new requirement.

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The court highlighted the extent of the problem by illustrating that 16 of 26 judges in the Patna high court are busy with litigation related to the 2016 liquor prohibition law, which was later amended in 2018 to water down some of the provisions of the Act relating to jail terms and confiscation of offenders’ properties.

“We find a number of cases coming to this Court arising from proceedings initiated under the Bihar Prohibition and Excise Amendment Act. The trial Court and the High Court are both being crowded by bail applications to an extent that at some stage 16 judges of the High Court are listening to bail matters, and prosecutions under the Act concerned form a large part of it. Denial of bail would also result in crowding of the prisons,” noted the bench in its order on Wednesday.

It added that the state is expected to have carried out some assessment of the impact the liquor prohibition law could have on police, jails, courts and other institutions, as it directed the Nitish Kumar-government to place the said study before the court to indicate if social, economic and institutional impacts were taken into account prior to notifying the 2016 law.

“We would like to inquire as to what steps the State of Bihar is taking, having brought the law into force and what analysis took place before the law was brought into force in terms of the court infrastructure required and the manpower required to deal with the litigation, which would arise from such a statute,” stated the court order.

When contacted, Sunil Kumar, Bihar minister for Prohibition, Excise and Registration department, said they “will give a proper response only after going through the entire court order”.

The bench also took note of the rigorous provisions of the legislation and sought to know from the state government if it would be willing to introduce the provisions of plea-bargaining in the law so that accused can plead guilty to the charges in exchange for certain concessions by the prosecution in the punishment.

“We would also like to know whether the plea-bargaining provisions can be taken recourse to deal with the scenario as it is emerging,” recorded the court, while seeking the state’s response by March 8.

The court order came as it heard a clutch of petitions, seeking pre-arrest or regular bail under the liquor prohibition law. The prohibition law was enforced in Bihar in April 2016, banning manufacture, sale or consumption of liquor. The law provides for a jail term up to life imprisonment for serious offences, besides confiscation of house, vehicle or other properties from where liquor is seized.

In July 2018, the state amended the law to dilute some of the stringent provision under the 2016 Act. For first-time offenders who store, manufacture or sell liquor, the punishment was reduced from 10 years’ jail term and 10 lakh fine to 5 years in jail and 1 lakh fine. The amendment also scrapped fine on an entire community in case liquor is found to be frequently manufactured and sold in particular area, clarifying only offenders will be booked. 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 serve 3 months in jail.

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

Addressing a public meeting at Bhagalpur on February 22, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar said that 16 million people in the state have given up drinking liquor since prohibition was enforced in April 2016. Bihar’s curtrent population is 104.1 million (as per Census 2011).

Last month, a bench led by Chief Justice of India NV Ramana dismissed Bihar government’s batch of appeals against the grant of anticipatory and regular bails to accused under the state’s stringent liquor law, saying these matters have choked the courts.

“You know how much impact this law has created in the working of the Patna High Court...it is taking one year to get a matter listed there and all courts are choked with liquor bail matters...I have been told that 14-15 high court judges are hearing these bail matters every day and no other matters are being taken up,” justice Ramana observed on January 11 while rejecting as many as 40 appeals of the state government.

Another attempt by the Bihar government to seek clarification was repelled by the CJI-led bench on January 27. Pointing out that there is no provision for anticipatory bail under Section 76 of the Act, the state urged the CJI to clarify that the rejection of bail orders was not a comment on validity of Section 76. But justice Ramana turned down the plea.

The CJI also highlighted the issue while delivering a lecture in Vijayawada in December last year. Underlining the importance of impact assessment and basic scrutiny of Constitutionality before passing of a legislation, justice Ramana had said that “a lack of foresight in legislating can directly result in the clogging of courts” and cited the case of the Bihar prohibition law. “For example, the introduction of the Bihar Prohibition Act 2016 resulted in the high court being clogged with bail applications. Because of this, a simple bail application takes one year to be disposed of,” he had said.

The constitutional validity of Bihar’s controversial liquor prohibition law is also under challenge before the top court. A bench, headed by justice AM Khanwilkar, is seized of a bunch of petitions, including one by the International Spirits and Wines Association of India. The petitions have raised issues of violation of an individual’s right to make choices, right to privacy, arbitrary and unreasonable restriction and draconian punishment under the law.

On February 14, this bench transferred similar petitions pending before the Patna High Court to itself and asked the state government to file its comprehensive response to the challenge to the 2016 law. The court will hear this matter next in the first week of April.

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