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Fines, not jail — how Bihar plans to dilute liquor law after CJI’s criticism & clogged courts

Proposed amendments likely to be placed before Bihar assembly in February, following criticism by CJI Ramana on the way cases under prohibition law are clogging courts.

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New Delhi: Nudged by the judiciary for clogging courts with cases arising out of Bihar’s prohibition law, the Nitish Kumar government has proposeed to amend the state’s anti-liquor legislation to reduce the load on the legal system.

The changes suggested include imposing fines on first-time offenders, instead of sending them to jail. The key amendment will empower an executive magistrate — an official not below the rank of deputy collector — to hear and summarily dispose of cases pertaining to liquor consumption.

“If a person is caught violating the law for the first time, the executive magistrate will hold a summary trial, hear the offender and impose a fine on him or her. The state government will fix the amount of fine to be imposed,” Bihar Excise Commissioner B. Kartikey Dhanji told ThePrint.

Failure to pay the penalty could lead to one month of simple imprisonment, he said.

Under the present law, brought into effect in 2016, first-time offenders can get bail from the police by paying Rs 50,000, but have to still face trial in court. Since most of the people fail to pay the fine, according to sources in the police and judiciary, they also end up going to jail and then applying for regular bail, either in the trial court or high court.

Repeat offenders are directly sent to jail and can face imprisonment of up to 10 years, if convicted.

The proposed amendments, said Dhanji, will bring down the number of cases reaching the judiciary. “It will lessen the burden on courts, giving them time to dispose of other judicial matters with ease,” he said, adding that the provision under the prohibition law that calls for the seizure of vehicles from which liquor is recovered will also be done away with, and vehicles can be released after a fine is paid.

The proposals are likely to be placed before the Bihar assembly in its forthcoming session in February.

The move follows the judiciary repeatedly voicing concerns over the congestion created in the justice delivery system due to the burgeoning prohibition cases. The problem had even drawn the attention of the Chief Justice of India, N.V. Ramana.

In December, 2021, at a seminar held in Vijayawada, Ramana had called the anti-liquor law a short-sighted decision of the Nitish Kumar government. The cases had clogged the state HC and simple bail petitions take a year to get decided, the CJI had said.

Earlier this month the CJI, dismissed an appeal by the Bihar government challenging 40 bail orders given by the Patna HC in liquor-related cases. The CJI had then again raised the issue of clogging in the HC, pointing out that “14 to 15 judges” were engaged in hearing these cases.

While prohibition laws have existed in the state since 2016, they have been more stringently imposed since November last year, following the death of about 40 people in hooch tragedies in the months of October and November. On 16 November, CM Nitish Kumar had held a seven-hour review meeting and declared that the prohibition laws would be implemented with an iron hand.

Also read: No one is on board with Nitish-JD(U)’s ‘samaj sudhar yatra’ — BJP, other allies, social experts

‘25% of pending bail applications related to prohibition cases’

The criticism by the CJI in December and this month is, however, not the first time that the judiciary has raised the issue of Bihar courts being overburdened by cases under the liquor law. In 2019, the Patna HC had also raised the issue with the Bihar government and pointed out that there were over two lakh cases related to violation of the anti-liquor law pending in Bihar courts. It had then asked the government how it planned to dispose of them.

The government had responded by setting up 74 dedicated courts to hear liquor-related cases. But the move failed to bring respite to the judiciary, as the rejection of bail applications by these courts ended in petitions in higher courts, said Arvind Ujwal, a government lawyer practicing in the Patna High Court.

Sources in the state excise department told ThePrint that over 3.5 lakh cases have been registered in Bihar since the prohibition law was enforced in 2016, and over 4 lakh people have been arrested under the law.

In an affidavit filed in the Supreme Court by the Patna High Court last week — a copy of which is with ThePrint — the HC disclosed that roughly 25 per cent of pending bail applications are related to cases of liquor prohibition.

The affidavit was filed in response to the top court’s order in December 2021, asking the HC to explain the causes for considerable delay in disposing of bail applications.

According to the Patna HC affidavit, at present, 39,622 bail applications — 21,681 anticipatory and 17,951 regular — are pending for disposal before the benches assigned to hear such matters. There are another 36,416 bail applications — 20,498 anticipatory and 15,918 regular – that are yet to be taken up.

‘State carries on litigation till SC’

“The Patna High Court is overwhelmed by bail applications related to violation of anti-liquor laws. Most of these cases are as trivial as being caught for consuming liquor, bringing legally purchased liquor from outside to the state, allegations of keeping empty liquor bottles and confiscation of property from where liquor is recovered. Patna High Court has to hear these cases at the cost of other more important cases,” said Patna HC lawyer Tuhin Shankar.

Ujwal echoed similar concerns. “On any day, there are around 25,000 bail petitions related to anti-liquor cases pending in the HC. The state (government) carries on litigation even till the Supreme Court,” he said.

In November last year, the state police sparked outrage for raiding over 50 wedding venues for liquor and had reportedly even barged into the rooms of brides.

Even the police appeared apologetic about such stringent measures. “Since the assembly has framed the law and it has been notified, we are obliged to implement it. The police conduct raids on receiving information. Several times, the information provided turns out to be false,” said an IG-ranked police officer, who did not wish to be named.

Political implications

The move to dilute the prohibition law comes amidst criticism by political parties in the state.

CM Nitish Kumar has taken a high ground on prohibition, dismissing claims by opponents that Bihar is facing financial loss because of the law, and that it is “draconian”. But his allies have a divergent view. Both the Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) and the BJP have demanded a revision of the law.

The Bihar government’s move is seen as the first step towards diluting the law.

“Let the government first bring the amendment and then we will demand removal of other controversial clauses. This move is an admission that the liquor laws have failed and only the downtrodden have suffered,” said Bhai Virendra Yadav, chief whip of the opposition RJD in the Bihar assembly.

(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)

Also read: Why Nitish’s JD(U) and BJP are compelled to stay in ‘unhappy marriage’, despite public sniping


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