WIDELY CRITICISED for the stringent provisions of the Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, the state government opened an email id, firstname.lastname@example.org, last week inviting suggestions on how to make the law more workable.
Critics of the law have already made it clear which aspects of the law bother them. Through posts on social media, many of these addressed to Chief Minister Nitish Kumar on Twitter, and comments to the local media, many have demanded that certain provisions be done away with altogether, such as the arrest of all adults from a household if one member is found possessing alcohol. Others have suggested the clause be amended to mandate a blood test for alcohol before any such arrest.
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The email account is accepting suggestions for 10 days starting Wednesday last week. The government has also invited suggestions through post and fax. “Since some people have been calling the liquor law draconian, we have invited suggestions,” CM Nitish said. “We don’t want to talk just about criticism but want suggestions. We will discuss how the law can be made better.”
Bihar imposed total prohibition on April 5, 2016, and some 15,000 people have been arrested under the law since then. Patna High Court struck down down most provisions of the Bihar Excise (Amendment) Act 2015, before the government obtained a stay from the Supreme Court. Last October 2, the government notified a new version, Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act 2016. At the JD(U)’s national council meeting in Rajgir, however, Nitish dropped hints of modifying the latest version too.
Some of the contentious clauses, and the feedback so far:
THE CLAUSE: If the head or any other adult member of a family is found drinking, possessing, distributing or selling liquor, all adult members including women can be arrested. The law presumes that if one member drinks or sells liquor, the others would know of it. The provision puts the burden on adult members to prove their innocence.
CRITICISM & SUGGESTIONS: Among the suggestions made to Nitish, one is to conduct blood tests for alcohol on all adult members. Others have suggested doing away with the provision since it is not necessary that one would know if one’s sibling or father has been drinking or has brought alcohol home.
THE CLAUSE: It says the premises of an offender will be confiscated, not just sealed.
CRITICISM & SUGGESTIONS: Critics have questioned how the government can confiscate an entire house, shared by a family including children and often co-owned by one’s spouse or siblings. “Does the government provide for an alternative house to the family or does it want to see them on the street?” one critic has questioned. Many have questioned if there are similar provisions for murder or rape accused.
THE CLAUSE: It provides for five to 10 years in jail, besides life and death sentences for serious offences. Also, almost all sections are non-bailable.
CRITICISM & SUGGESTIONS: Critics have asked the government for the number of rapists and murderers in jail and how that compares with those jailed under the liquor law. Among suggestions, the most frequent has been of fine on first offence, followed by higher fine and arrest only on later offences.
THE CLAUSE: Authorises the district collector to decide the amount of community fine.
CRITICISM & SUGGESTIONS: One suggestion has been that the fine be linked to the financial status of the accused, perhaps a certain percentage of his annual income. What constitutes a community or a mohalla is also being debated. “Just because I happen to be a neighbour of a liquor manufacturer should not make me an offender,” said Rohit Kumar of Patna, who has posted this view online.
THE CLAUSE: Provides for externing a habitual offender from his district for 2-6 months.
CRITICISM & SUGGESTIONS: “Will externing an offender to another district of Bihar guarantee he would not look for ways to drinking? The government should rather send such people to a deaddiction centre.”
Some people have questioned certain assumptions, such as the recovery of an empty liquor bottle or wrapper in a house or on business premises being taken to imply sale or consumption. This provision makes it easy to frame enemies and even allows possible misuse by police to harass people, they say.
In addition to offering to consider suggestions, the government has itself identified possible exceptions to the alcohol ban, sources said. These would include use of alcohol in Ayurvedic or homoeopathic medicines. Patna High Court said recently the government cannot ban purchase of alcohol for medicinal use.
The government has allowed the Canteen Stores Department to sell alcohol to defence personnel, and consumption within the cantonment area. The government is also considering allowing purchase in restricted amount if prescribed by a doctor.