Bihar has just brought amendments to its 4-month-old prohibition law that makes all adults in a family liable if even one drinks or keeps liquor at home, and allows a Collector to extern a drinker for 6 months.
Why was the Bihar Excise (Amendment) Act, 2016 amended by the Bihar Assembly on Monday, just 4 months after its passage?
The law passed on April 1 provided for part prohibition — banning only country liquor. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar was, however, encouraged sufficiently with the initial response — especially among women in the rural areas — to decide to completely ban all kinds of liquor. To extend the ban to non-country liquor — the so-called Indian Made Foreign Liquor, or IMFL — and to plug loopholes that allowed alleged offenders to obtain bail, it was necessary to amend the April 1 law. In general, Nitish desired a more stringent law to discourage drinking, and the amendments have incorporated a host of provisions to make it foolproof, giving the Collector, police and the excise department more powers, including making arrests without a warrant. The new law — Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016 — is broad-based and more stringent than earlier, probably more so than any comparable law in any state.
So, what are some of the more stringent changes introduced in the April 1 law?
The most controversial provision is the one that makes all adults of a family responsible for the consumption and possession of liquor at home by any member of the family. The assumption is that all adults must be in the know, and must be held responsible until proven otherwise.
All sections of the Act are non-bailable, leaving it solely to the courts to decide based on the circumstances and gravity of individual cases. Special courts under the Bihar Special Courts Act will now try Excise Act cases — these courts have hitherto tried only corruption cases involving public servants. Bihar has no special courts to try other serious crimes, such as cases of Maoist violence, terror, rape or murder.
Another new provision says that upon finding utensils with a mix of sugar or jaggery with grapes on the premises, the police would be free to assume that liquor-making was in progress, and suspects and those providing them with logistics such as vehicles and containers can be held.
It is incumbent upon homeowners to inform police if their tenants drink. Refusing to take a breathalyser test is an offence under the new provisions. A district Collector can impose a collective fine if a group in a village or town is a frequent offender. The Collector can also extern a habitual drinker from a district for up to six months.
Another draconian amendment to the law empowers the police to confiscate premises where liquor is consumed or stored. These premises could earlier be only sealed. Confiscation of property has so far been allowed only in corruption cases.
How have political parties reacted?
The amendments — especially their non-bailable nature, the provision that makes all adults of a family responsible for drinking by one, and the confiscation of the crime premises — have invited criticism from all parties who have, however, stopped short of escalating the protest. The JD(U)’s alliance partner, RJD, despite criticising the amendments, extended support in the House. Although Lalu had to issue a whip to ensure the amendments were passed, he did score over Nitish in pointing out the “inhuman side” of the law. The RJD says it would be happy if a court strikes down the controversial provisions some day.
As for the BJP, its leader Nand Kishore Yadav said in the Assembly that his party favoured prohibition but was against the “stringent” provisions. The BJP walked out, leaving the amendments to be passed 150-46.
So, are there any exceptions to the law?
Toddy — which the government has kept out under pressure from the RJD. Although the sale of toddy is banned near marketplaces in towns and villages, it will continue to be sold and consumed from 100 m to 200 m away from markets and public places as per a 1991 provision brought by the then Lalu Prasad government.
The NDA had been vociferous in demanding that the Scheduled Caste Pasis should not lose their traditional toddy trade. Lalu has been loathe to concede the NDA any political advantage; Nitish himself has his Mahadalit constituency, of which the Pasis are part. Finally, the Congress too has been opposed to including toddy in the prohibited category — the RJD and Congress together have 107 MLAs in the Assembly against the JD(U)’s 78.
But what lies behind Nitish’s unyielding focus on banning liquor?
He obviously sees a major political plank in prohibition. He has seen it deliver in Bihar, and he has been talking about it in his public meetings in UP, Delhi, Jharkhand and other states to build pressure on Prime Minister Narendra Modi to take a stand. Nitish has been linking prohibition to social reforms; Nobel winner Kailash Satyarthi will conduct a study on the impact of prohibition on society. With “good governance” somewhat worn out, prohibition could be Nitish’s big plank for a possible Prime Ministerial bid in 2019.
Okay, but what sort of impact has the liquor law actually had so far?
Police have arrested over 10,000 people under the law. Despite recurrent cases of smuggling from UP, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Nepal, the law can be termed successful. Rural areas are largely free of liquor at public places, even though there have been reports of people drinking privately. Police sources say the price of liquor has gone up to 3-4 times the printed price. The state government has been upset with Jharkhand, where the sale of liquor has predictably gone up in the border districts.
And will the new law lead to police raj?
That’s what many fear. However, even though police have got more powers, the amended law also has a tougher provision against harassment by them and excise officials — the punishment for misuse of the law is now up from 3 months to 3 years in jail, and a fine of up to Rs 1 lakh.
Can the amendments be challenged?
Legal experts say the 100-point, 45-page amendment has at least half-a-dozen provisions that can be challenged in court. Senior Advocate at Patna High Court Dinu Kumar said, “How can all family members be made responsible for offence by one? It contravenes the fundamental rights to liberty and freedom. Are family members of a rapist, murderer or terrorist made responsible? Confiscation of property for one bottle of liquor from a house and several other sections provide for punishment disproportionate to the nature of offence. The law will face a big legal test.”