Patna: Facing criticism from the Supreme Court over its clogged courts, dry state Bihar has made a move to give some relief to consumers of illegal liquor. Passed by the state assembly Wednesday, the Bihar Prohibition and Excise (Amendment) Bill, 2022, states that people caught consuming liquor will now have to pay a fine before a magistrate and won’t be sent to jail.
If the accused is unable to pay the fine — the amount has not been specified in the legislation — he or she will be sent to one month’s simple imprisonment. The amendment does not differentiate between first-time and repeat offenders.
In contrast, the existing law, after a 2018 amendment that relaxed some of the provisions of the original 2016 Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, mandates Rs 50,000 fines or three months’ imprisonment for first-time offenders, and jail terms of five years and fines of Rs 1 lakh for repeat offenders.
“It’s time that we focus on suppliers of illegal liquor instead of the consumers,” remarked excise minister Sunil Kumar, conceding that anti-liquor violations had clogged Bihar’s courts since prohibition began to be enforced April 2016, despite the government having set up 74 special courts.
The minister, however, insisted that the anti-liquor laws would continue to be enforced strictly. “The anti-liquor laws have the people’s approval, especially women. I have seen it myself during the chief minister’s social reforms yatra,” he said.
The bill was passed rejecting the amendments moved by the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s (RJD) Samir Mahaseth and the Congress’s Ajit Sharma, who sought more transparency in the law, alleging that it still gives sweeping powers to the police and the excise department.
Speaking to ThePrint, Mahaseth said, “This is not the last time the Bihar government will make amendments in the law. There are still flaws, such as the confiscation of property where liquor is seized.”
“Even in the present amendment, the government is yet to quantify the fine. Suppose a poor man is asked for a huge amount — he will have no option but to go to jail”, he added.
Not only first time offenders
The amended law doesn’t differentiate between first-time and repeat offenders, as there is no system to find out how many times a person has violated the law.
“However, over a period of time, repeat offenders will be identified and harsher punishments will be given,” Sunil Kumar told ThePrint.
The law will also be applicable to pending cases. There are many inmates in Bihar jails who have been caught drinking and have been in jail for more than two months because their cases have not come up for hearing. Now, they will be able to walk out of jail after paying the stipulated fine.
Bihar’s jails are highly overcrowded; in August last year, there were 62,823 prisoners against a total capacity of 46,449.
“Drinkers of illegal liquor contribute significantly to these numbers. About 40%,” said a jail department official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Pressure from Supreme Court
In December year, Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana expressed his displeasure at the Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016 saying that the move had been made with a “lack of foresight”,and led to the state’s court being clogged. He said that at least 14-15 judges of the Patna High Court were kept busy each day with bail hearings in liquor cases.
It’s estimated that 3.5 lakh cases are pending in Bihar’s courts.
On 8 March, a bench of Supreme Court Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and MM Sundresh, hearing bail pleas in liquor cases, slammed the Bihar government for enforcing the prohibition law without an impact assessment and without upgrading the judicial infrastructure.
“It’s due to the pressure of the Supreme Court that relief has been given to illicit liquor drinkers,” alleged Congress MLA Ajit Sharma.
(Edited by Rohan Manoj)