Facing backlash on prohibition, Bihar set to water down its harsh provisions

The decision was taken at a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, and the amendments are set to be tabled during the monsoon session. Over 1.4 lakh people have been booked under the liquor law ever since it was implemented in April 2016.

UNDER FIRE over alleged misuse of the Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016, the state government on Tuesday cleared amendments to the law which will dilute some of its stringent provisions.

Sources told The Indian Express that at least five provisions under the law could be watered down, including those related to arrest of first-time offenders, “arrest of all adults” of a family, and seizure of house/ vehicle where liquor is recovered.

The decision was taken at a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, and the amendments are set to be tabled during the monsoon session.

“The cabinet has given its nod to the proposal for amendments in the Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016,” said Principal Secretary Arun Kumar Singh. He, however, did not give details of the proposed amendments.

“Amendments will be brought in the monsoon session. We have received people’s feedback on misuse of some provisions of the law by police and excise department… The objective of the proposed amendments is to ensure that people are not harassed unnecessarily,” Chief Minister Nitish Kumar had said earlier this week.

“One of the proposed amendments is doing away with provisions related to seizure of house/ vehicle in case liquor is recovered from a house or vehicle. Another major amendment could be diluting the penal provisions in cases related to just consumption of liquor, while increasing the fine imposed. There could also be additional provision allowing fine for first and subsequent offence. But the final draft is not yet ready as we are still in the process of taking legal opinion,” said a senior official involved in the process.

READ | Prohibition in Bihar: Why Nitish Kumar says no to liquor

Sources said there is a proposal to impose a fine of Rs 50,000, while doing away with the provision allowing arrest in case of a first-time offence.

According to sources, the provision which allows “arrest of all adults in a family if an adult of the house is found consuming, distributing or storing liquor” may also be amended. “This provision is very stringent as it means that the women of a household are also arrested, leaving the minors with nobody to take care of them. This section will be made milder,” said the official.

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The official said the government was also looking at revisiting the provision related to imposition of fine on the entire community if liquor was found to be manufactured in a particular area. “Action could be taken against only those who are conniving with liquor sellers, manufacturers and distributors, and not the entire neighbourhood as under the existing provisions,” said the official. He recalled how in at least six districts, including Patna, the offenders belonged to the Scheduled Caste (Mushahars and Pasis).

“The government is becoming somewhat unpopular among some Mahadalit castes, especially those who used to earn their living by selling country liquor and toddy. The government has already allowed sale of neera, fresh palm and date juice extracted in the morning,” said a JD (U) leader.

Earlier, the state government had conducted an unofficial survey of the caste-wise break-up of people jailed under the law. The Indian Express reported in May that SCs, OBCs and EBCs — among the state’s weakest and most marginalised — faced the brunt of the government’s crackdown. Their share of inmate population in the eight central, 32 district and 17 sub-jails across Bihar, after they were arrested for violating prohibition laws since April 2016, far outstripped their share in the state’s population.

Asked if some sections under the law could be made bailable, the official said: “That is also being studied. The law, however, would continue to be stringent for liquor manufacturers, sellers and supplies.” Under Sections 29 to 41 of the Act, storing, selling and manufacturing liquor are non-bailable offences. However, those arrested for these offences have been getting bail, with the high court underlining judicial discretion in granting or denying bail.

Two days ago, the Patna high court pulled up the state police for seizing vehicles in which liquor was found, saying there is no such provision under the Act. Earlier, the high court also pulled up police for confiscating a bus belonging to the West Bengal government in which a person was found to be carrying liquor.

Over 1.4 lakh people have been booked under the liquor law ever since it was implemented in April 2016.

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