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Bihar Liquor Prohibition: A Political Gimmick, a “Failed” Law or Both?

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Though Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has repeatedly claimed that the Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016, has helped control crime in the state, mounting pressure from the Opposition and within, beside the Supreme Court's rebuke over pressure on judiciary due to the law, has brought Kumar on the back foot.

By SANTOSH SHARMA


Liquor prohibition in Bihar is more than just a law! It is politics, a poll promise, and an Act that has not only put extra burden on state exchequer, but has also “choked” Bihar courts with pending cases apparently. 

Despite bringing in a stringent law in Bihar (Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016), hooch tragedy and liquor smuggling are not new to the state that seeks complete prohibition of liquor and intoxicants in the territory of the state of Bihar and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto through this Act. 

The Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016 (Act, 2016) prohibits the manufacture, storage, distribution, transportation, possession, sale, purchase, and consumption of any intoxicant or liquor, unless so allowed in terms of the Act. As per the Act, anyone found in possession of liquor bottles can be punished with imprisonment for a term ranging from 10 years to life and a fine ranging from Rs 1 to 10 lakh. 

In one of the recent hooch tragedies, only recently in January 2022, as many as 11 people died in Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar's home district Nalanda after consuming spurious liquor. The incident was confirmed by local police.  

Earlier, in November 2021, at least 30 people died within a span of three days after consuming illicit liquor in Muzaffarpur and Samastipur districts of Bihar.  

Despite repeated calls for revising/relaxing the law from the opposition, Confederation of Indian Alcoholic Beverage Companies, and stakeholders concerned, Bihar Chief Minister has remained firm on his stance and has reiterated that the Act has controlled crime rate and finds support from women folks of the state. 

On November 26, 2015, Nitish had announced that alcohol would be banned in the state from April 1, 2016. Kumar officially declared the total ban on April 5, 2016. "All type of liquor will be banned in the state from today (read April 5, 2016)," the Bihar Chief Minister had said during a press conference.  

Pressure on Judiciary 

The Bihar Chief Minister has stood firm with his decision and with the Act until recently when the Supreme Court on January 11 dismissed its batch of appeals challenging grant of anticipatory and regular bails to accused under the state's stringent liquor law, saying these matters have choked courts and 14 to 15 Patna high court judges are hearing these cases only. Stating lack of foresightedness in legislating can directly result in the blockage of courts, Chief Justice N.V. Ramana rejected the contention of the Bihar government that guidelines be framed to ensure reasoned bail orders are passed taking into account the quantity of liquor seized from an accused. 

Taking Bihar government to task, the chief justice said, "You know how much impact this law (The Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016) has created in the working of the Patna High Court and it is taking one year to get a matter listed there and all the courts are choked with the 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 while rejecting as many as 40 appeals of the state government against grant of anticipatory and regular matters by the high court, as per media reports. 

As many as 3,48,170 cases were lodged and 4,01,855 arrests made under the Bihar Prohibition and Excise law until October 2021, and about 20,000 bail pleas in such cases are pending disposal either in the high court or in district courts, showed Bihar police records. 

Revenue loss & call for repeal of prohibition law 

As per the Confederation of Indian Alcoholic Beverage Companies (CIABC), the state has been incurring a revenue loss from the legitimate liquor trade of around Rs 10,000 crore per annum.  

Stating that Bihar’s growth and development have been affected as the state is losing out on revenue from the legitimate liquor trade, the CIABC urged the Bihar government to end liquor prohibition in the state. 

The confederation, in its letter to the leaders of the NDA constituents, Janata Dal (United), Bharatiya Janata Party, Hindustani Awam Morcha (Secular), and Viskassheel Insaan Party, has highlighted that the state is paying a heavy price of the prohibition policy in the form of proliferation of unlawful and spurious liquor, hooch tragedies, the rise of crime syndicates, and loss of legitimate government revenues.  

The Confederation of Indian Alcoholic Beverage Companies also suggested several steps to the Chief Minister Nitish Kumar to ensure his avowed goals of helping women are achieved without adverse fallouts of prohibition. It suggested that the chief minister direct liquor factories to hire 50 per cent of their workforce as women, which will lead to economic self-reliance and empowerment. 

“Prohibition has led to the creation of the liquor mafia. It has also caused major damage to the state’s economy and potential investments, thus hitting job creation. Revenue from liquor sales used to be a major source of revenue for the state exchequer. Bihar is missing out on annual revenue of around Rs 10,000 crore, forcing the state towards debt crisis,” CIABC Director-General Vinod Giri said.  

Mounting pressure from opposition and within on Bihar CM

Meanwhile, amid relentless attack from the opposition and mounting pressure from BJP colleagues from within the alliance over alleged “ineffective implementation” of the prohibition law and recent hooch tragedies in Bihar, it is learnt that Nitish Kumar is mulling to amend the legislation. 

"The state exchequer is registering severe loss in the wake of the ban. While the state police is keeping an eye on the liquor operations, crimes like murder, kidnapping, rape, theft and other cases are increasing. Bihar police are not paying attention to the crimes," BJP MLA Hari Bhushan Singh Bachaul had said in November last year while demanding rollback of liquor prohibition law in the state. 

He even alleged that home delivery of liquor is being done in the state. "The school going kids are smuggling liquor in the bags. While they are doing home delivery, the state government is playing with the future of the next generation," he added. 

Reacting to the development, Danish Rizwan, the chief spokesperson of Hindustani Awam Morcha, told media that instead of bringing amendment or review of liquor prohibition law, chief minister should do a survey on this issue. "If common people of the state are satisfied with the amendment or review, our party will not go against it. If people of Bihar are in favour of withdrawal of the liquor ban, we also respect that decision," he had said after reports of Nitish Kumar mulling the option of relaxing the Prohibition Act started doing the rounds. 

Nitish contemplates relaxing Prohibition Law 

As per media reports, Bihar chief minister is mulling to make the law less stringent to reduce the number of pending cases related to liquor prohibition in the state. First-time offenders may not be arrested anymore and let off after serving a fine, an officer privy to the matter told news agencies. A repeat offender would be liable to face a jail term. 

Besides, the government may also add a provision where a vehicle confiscated for violating liquor prohibition may be released after paying a penalty. 

It is also learnt that the state government might introduce an amendment Bill in the next session of Bihar Assembly in February. 

This is not the first case of amendment in liquor prohibition act. Earlier, in 2018, the state government had made a provision to grant bail to normal offenders at the police station level. The offenders have to pay Rs 50,000 as fine. In case offenders were unable to pay the penalty, they would be liable to face jail term. Under the liquor prohibition law, the maximum jail term is 10 years. 

Is Prohibition the solution?

Ironically, “dry” Bihar has a higher proportion of people consuming alcohol than Maharashtra. This was revealed in the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) 2019–2020 released in December last year. 

As per the NHFS-5 findings, a 15.5 percent chunk of the male population of age 15 years and above in Bihar consume alcohol against 13.9 percent of men in the same age bracket in Maharashtra. 

As per the same survey, 14 percent of men aged 15 years and above drinks alcohol in urban regions of Bihar, while the percentage is 15.8 in rural part of the state. In Maharashtra, 13 percent of urban population drinks alcohol, while the percentage is 14.7 in rural Maharashtra. The same survey also found that women aged 15 years and above in both the states are on the same level as 0.4 per cent of such population drinks liquor in both Bihar and Maharashtra.

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