Patna: In ‘dry’ state Bihar, where jails have been filling up with consumers of illegal liquor, and the prohibition law has drawn heavy criticism, the Nitish Kumar-led NDA government has decided to give offenders an option: To become informers and avoid a spell in prison.
The move comes as the state is being called out for poor implementation of its strict prohibition law, “lack of foresight” while framing it, and alleged misuse of its provisions. Just last week, a Supreme Court bench had wondered if the state was willing to introduce a “bargaining clause” in The Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016.
Monday, the state announced that it would not jail liquor consumers if they reveal the names of sellers, and subsequent raids result in the arrest of the accused.
“Our focus will now be on the supplier rather than consumers of liquor. We realise that liquor consumption is a social evil and people can be reformed,” deputy commissioner of the Bihar excise department, Krishna Kumar, told ThePrint. Another official said “in other words, the department is asking the consumers to become informers”.
Sunil Kumar, the state’s minister for excise and prohibition, told ThePrint: “We are likely to introduce the amendment to the anti-liquor laws in the current legislative session.”
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What the law says
The liquor ban was imposed by the Nitish Kumar government in April 2016. When the law was enacted for the first time, there were provisions for harsh punishment of 5 to 7 years in jail for those caught consuming liquor. Later, in 2018, the law was amended and provisions were made to let off first-time offenders on payment of Rs 50,000 fine, or jail for three months in case the offender is not able to pay the fine.
“But I find policemen imposing more serious provisions and sending the offender to jail,” conceded an IG-ranked official who didn’t want to be named.
According to Krishna Kumar, since April 2016, around 4 lakh people have been jailed in connection with anti-liquor laws.
The state prisons are overflowing. Beur Central Jail in Patna has a capacity of 2,360 inmates. According to jail department sources, there were around 4,200 inmates there in January this year.
Similarly, Buxar Central Jail has a capacity of 1,141 inmates. But this January, more than 2,300 inmates crowded the prison. Chhapra Central Jail has a capacity of 931 inmates but housed over 2,000 inmates in January.
“The majority of inmates in Bihar jails are liquor law offenders,” said a jail official.
Barrage of criticism
Last December, Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana criticised the Bihar government for lack of foresight in framing of the prohibition law and said it had led to clogging of the judicial system.
In February, a Supreme Court bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and M.M. Sundresh, commenting on the litigation related to the anti-liquor laws bogging down courts, asked the Bihar government if it had conducted a study before implementing the anti-liquor laws. The next hearing on petitions challenging Bihar’s anti-liquor laws is on 8 March.
The Bihar government has announced that it will amend the law, enabling liquor consumers caught for the first time to be let off after paying fine to a magistrate, and that this would lead to lessening of burden on the judiciary.
According to Patna High Court lawyer Piyush Ranjan, “whatever the state government is saying has to be specifically incorporated in the law. The anti-liquor laws have often been misused by the police and the excise department”.
He said the provision of imposing Rs 50,000 fine on first-time offenders and letting them off has been seldom used by the police, and offenders are mostly sent to jail.
‘Supplier might come out of jail and kill the informer’
The opposition RJD questioned the government announcement to give relief to liquor consumers. “This will make the consumer who has revealed the source a target of the liquor mafia. Once the liquor supplier is out of jail, he might kill the informer,” RJD spokesperson Shakti Singh Yadav said.
Yadav further questioned the wisdom of the state government in hiring choppers and drones to crack down on the liquor trade.
Earlier, in January, a row had broken out over the Bihar education department’s directive to government school teachers to be on the “look-out” for liquor law offenders. A large section of teachers had refused to follow the order, saying they would be targeted by the liquor mafia.
(Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)
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