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Penalty, not arrest; power to withdraw cases: Bihar plans reforms in liquor law

These are part of a set of significant reforms envisaged in the Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016, according to a proposed draft of these changes, obtained by The Indian Express.

Written by Santosh Singh | Patna |
Updated: January 21, 2022 7:40:05 am
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar (file photo)

First-time “drinkers” could get away with a penalty rather than face arrest; cases can be withdrawn; a vehicle in which liquor is found may no longer be confiscated and, if it is, can be released after a fine; a section dealing with “immediate” arrest may well be deleted; bootleggers should face the brunt of the law.

These are part of a set of significant reforms envisaged in the Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016, according to a proposed draft of these changes, obtained by The Indian Express.

The latest proposed amendments come after criticism of the Government for the way it has implemented the law. Chief Justice N V Ramana last month flagged it as an example of “lack of foresight.” He said it had resulted in the High Court “being clogged with bail applications …a simple bail application takes one year to be disposed.”


Courts clogged, jails full

The key trigger is the mountain of cases under the law as flagged by the CJI. Records show over 4 lakh arrests so far, 20,000 pending bail pleas. Bihar’s 59 jails have a capacity of 47,000 but now have about 70,000, almost 25,000 booked under the liquor law.

Bihar Prohibition and Excise Minister Sunil Kumar — whose Ministry has drafted the proposals —did not respond to The Indian Express queries but sources said the state government is exploring the possibility of bringing these in the upcoming Budget session of the Assembly.
The key amendment proposals:

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Under Section 37, punishment for drinking is a jail term from five years to 10 and even life. The amendment calls for a “penalty as may be notified by

the state government and failure to pay such penalty shall invite a simple imprisonment of one month”. It further says: “Provided that, in case of repeat offenders, the state government may, by notification, prescribe additional penalty or imprisonment or both”.

All offences, currently, are heard by trial courts. Under an amendment, the offences “shall be disposed of through the summary trial by an Executive Magistrate, not below the rank of Deputy Collector”. This is expected to accelerate the process and declog courts.

Deletion of Section 55 which made all offences under the Act non-compoundable – this means the cases can now be withdrawn, a compromise between two parties can be made in or outside the courts.

Insertion in Section 57 to allow release, upon payment of penalty, of vehicles confiscated for carrying liquor.

Deletion of Chapter VII of the Act that deals with internment and externment of the accused under which there were curbs on their movement. This will also include deletion of its key Sections: Section 67 (extension of period of externment); Section 68 (permission to return temporarily); Section 70 (immediate arrest).

To focus on criminal networks rather than minor, individual violations, a new sub-Section 50A has been planned that defines bootlegging as an “organised crime.”

Another key trigger for the proposed amendments, sources said, is the recent spurt in hooch deaths: over 50 in Nalanda, Saran, West Champaran and Gopalganj between November 2021 and mid-January 2022. The JD(U) is also under pressure from its senior alliance partner BJP that keeps attacking “poor implementation” of the liquor law.

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